Thursday, September 07, 2006

Lessons learned in South Carolina

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on August 26th, 2006:

Since I am a most loving grandson, I took off with a friend last weekend to spend a few days with my grandmother in Greenville, S.C. I went mostly expecting to enjoy her outstanding cooking and play with my young cousins, but the trip also got me to thinking about some of the major political issues locally in Orange County.

Until 2000, my grandparents lived in a rural part of Greenville County about 10 miles away from the city. I always enjoyed going out there and getting away from the urban existence. Other than a gas station and a golf driving range, there was pretty much no commercial development within three miles of their house.

The atmosphere out there could probably best be compared to the area north of Hillsborough or west of Carrboro as you head out on 54 toward Alamance County.

When we drove out to their old farm last weekend we were greeted by several strip malls, a Super BiLo, a car dealership and about half a dozen subdivisions. The county is booming and sooner or later there is going to be no open space left. It only took six years to turn the quiet countryside into Sprawlville, USA.

There are a lot of folks who live in Orange County who don't like the rural buffer.

But seeing how the solitude has been destroyed by rapid, large-scale development in a county that doesn't seem to do much planning, I'm glad we have it.

We need healthy economic growth here, and I would like to see some significant growth in the commercial tax base so we can reduce some of the burden of property taxes.

But we also need to preserve open space and keep our county beautiful. I'm even more sure of that after seeing what has happened in Greenville County.

In the rural part of the county I saw where I do not want Orange County to go.

But in downtown Greenville, I saw a model for where downtown Chapel Hill needs to go.

Greenville's downtown has seen an incredible revitalization in recent years, largely due to the creation of attractive housing that has driven people to move back into the center city.

It used to be remarkably dull, but with the influx of downtown residents a vibrant culture has developed that appeals to people of all ages.

One reason downtown is so attractive to folks there is that they can meet many of their basic needs without ever having to walk more than three or four blocks. My friend had forgotten to bring any socks on the trip, and without giving it a second of thought my grandmother was able to tell him where he could get a normal inexpensive pair of socks on Main Street.

There might be a place in downtown Chapel Hill where you can do that, but one does not immediately leap to my mind.

There is also a downtown full-service grocery store.

This seemed to me a preview of what downtown Chapel Hill could look like if we stay the course with the redevelopment of Lots 2 and 5. Certainly, things have not gone as well with the financing of these projects as we would have liked, and they have gone much slower than we might have hoped for.

If I choose to stay in Chapel Hill for the long haul though, I want to be able to live downtown and not have to own a car. That means being able to fill all my normal shopping needs within walking distance.

I don't see that happening if the downtown plans are scrapped. Too much work has been put into them by too many different people to stop now.

Beyond that, I saw last weekend what a vibrant downtown in a mid-sized city like Chapel Hill can look like, and I want to see something like that happen here.

A large contingent of local leaders is heading to Madison, Wis., next month to look at what we can bring home from another college town.

It might be time well spent for a group to head down Interstate 85 at some point and see how Greenville has created such a family-friendly downtown while also retaining aspects that make it appealing to young people.

We're headed in the right direction here with the opening of the Kidzu Children's Museum, but there are still a lot of things we can do to make downtown more appealing to non-students.

I got all the usual love and hospitality from my grandmother on my trip to South Carolina last weekend, but I also picked up a lot of new perspective about how what we're doing is and is not working here in Orange County.

It's very healthy for local leaders to take the trips like the one to Madison next month and also to look at what places closer to home are doing. The ideas we bring home can do nothing but improve our community.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.



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