Sustaining the Vibrance of Chapel Hill: Business Owners’ Insights on Economic Development

Scott Maitland was a law student at UNC in 1994, when he heard that a TGI Fridays was potentially opening on Franklin Street. Not wanting downtown Chapel Hill to lose its charm, he snatched up the property before the deal could be closed. 

Two years later, he opened Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery, the beloved institution on Franklin Street.

Fast forward thirty years, and he’s seen businesses come and go, development plans come to light or fall apart, and UNC students graduate into the work world.

The vibrancy is still there, but how can Chapel Hill keep it, especially as the town continues to grow? 

As Maitland recently described, “I didn’t start [Top of the Hill] to be in the restaurant business. I started Top of the Hill to be in the Chapel Hill business.” 

That ‘Chapel Hill business’ is what some downtown shop owners proudly call ‘the magic”. 

“It’s that magic that brings people in,” says Jaime Sanchez, who co-owns Epilogue Books, Chocolate and Brews with wife Miranda. “Being supportive of each other, as a business, or a government, or a resident or visitor.” 

Sanchez hails from Tijuana, Mexico and dreamed of owning a business where he could share his culinary and cultural traditions with others. Miranda is a fiction writer. 

The pair agreed that Franklin Street needed a bookstore after The Bookshop closed in 2017. In 2019, they opened Epilogue, an inclusive independent bookstore known for paying their staff a living wage and for providing Mexican sweets and drinks. 

How the Office of Economic Development Balances Magic with Growth 

Jaime and Miranda found a valuable partner in the Office of Economic Development.

”I’ve had pretty open communication with the economic development office and the Chapel Hill government. Early on when we were scoping out the project, they were very receptive to the idea. They helped us scope out spaces…they put us in contact with the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership” which led to grant money, Jaime proudly states.

While there are many components that help a town thrive, the Office of Economic Development touches all the areas, from parking to events to land use and liveability. “We are an ear for the community,” states Sarah Potter of the Office. She adds, “I’ve never worked in a city where people care so much about local government.” 

Alex Brandwein believes in the magic too. In 2018, after an 8-year career in investment banking and private equity in New York City, he enrolled at Kenan Flagler Business School in hopes of finding a new direction and opportunity. Launch Chapel Hill, in conjunction with UNC’s Entrepreneurship Program, was pivotal in providing a foundation for developing his business model and opening Brandwein’s Bagels. 

“It changed my life,” he says of the program. “I met so many local business owners, including Scott Maitland, who were so supportive and generous with their time and ideas.” Through Launch mentors, Alex was introduced to legal, accounting, insurance, and contracting professionals who are integral to his business.

Formed as a partnership between the Town of Chapel Hill, Orange County and UNC in 2013, Launch Chapel Hill is a startup accelerator that helps aspiring entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground. 

The program connects them with a wide network of business owners and provides a stepping stone for their own venture. Since its founding, businesses in Orange County helped by the program have hired over 400 employees. 

Businesses under Launch have also generated over $105 million in revenue and raised over $60 million in funding. The Office of Economic Development has played a major role in its implementation, and Director Dwight Bassett serves on the Board of Directors. 

The program recently moved its offices to a new building slated to become part of the downtown’s new Innovation District along Franklin and Rosemary Streets. The name is appropriate because innovation is what keeps thriving towns from becoming stagnant. 

Currently, four out of five residents work outside Chapel Hill, and a small percent of Chapel Hill workers live in the town. This means that the town is potentially suffering a ‘brain drain’ and that commuters to the town cannot afford to live here.  

“We’re trying to keep talent in Chapel Hill,” says Potter. “There’s been a lot of effort from our department to try and bring full-time workers downtown all year round.” This means creating an economy that will retain local residents, including UNC graduates, beyond the school year.

The Innovation District will provide just that, with approximately 118,000 square feet of space for startups and other burgeoning industries like wet labs and Life Science companies.

Thoughtful Innovation in Chapel Hill

But there are many other tools the Office of Economic Development team uses to help keep the magic going. In 2018, the team applied for and was granted an Opportunity Zone, which covers the area of East Franklin Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and Estes Drive. 

Opportunity Zones can boost the economy by offering tax benefits to those investing in lower-income areas, allowing businesses to flourish in areas that need investment. This helps ensure Chapel Hill maintains a diverse array of businesses. 

There is also the North Chapel Business Center, a flex/light industrial space included within a conditional zoning district championed by the office. The center contains over 100,000 square feet for businesses that will diversify the town’s economy. With the smallest bays starting at 2,400 square feet, it provides a home for small businesses that are unable to find a space suitable for their current needs. In addition to the business center, this area is home to a new corporate headquarters–HonorBridge.

Both Potter and Maitland admit that increased development may give residents the impression that the town makes major decisions in the spur of the moment. But in reality, they are often many years in the making. 

Additionally, government studies can spawn new initiatives. The Complete Community Strategy grew out of a 2021 housing needs report, for example. This initiative seeks to promote a wider variety of housing types to improve affordability. It also aligns connectivity and sustainability goals with the coming bus-rapid transit corridor from Eubanks Road to Southern Village that will help locals get around easier. 

Ensuring Nostalgia Does Not Stagnate Chapel Hill  

Business owners also concede that a major source of opposition can be based on nostalgia. Just ask Andrea Reusing, founder of the longstanding Lantern Restaurant and the new community space Garden Spot, which was launched with support from the town’s ReVive grant program. 

Andrea reminds us to ask, “Nostalgia for who? Some people don’t feel welcome on Franklin Street.” She and her collaborator Abby Parcell are changing that, along with partners like the Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership, Durham Tech Community College, and an advisory group made up of community advocates, food system experts, and local chefs. 

They created Garden Spot to help food entrepreneurs break into the Chapel Hill market and provide support for new endeavors, as well as marketing support, a peer network, and access to business development resources. The goal is to reduce some of the burdens facing new business owners.

Everyone has a different idea of nostalgia based on how long they have lived here. Being closed off to change ultimately won’t satisfy everyone and will keep Chapel Hill stagnant.

The Office of Economic Development understands this and is committed to using all the tools they have to keep the magic going, for residents and businesses alike.

“I absolutely love it here,” gushes Brandwein. “It all starts with people who care about each other and want to see everyone succeed. Chapel Hill is that magic place.”

Says Sanchez, “It’s those unique connections that we’ve been able to make with our government, with our local businesses, locals volunteering…that’s the magic I”m talking about. You don’t get that from visiting Starbucks.”

Learn More About Economic Development in Chapel Hill

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This article was researched and written by Sarah Greenberg, CEO/Founder of HeySarah.

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