Orange County is still healthier, wealthier and more diverse than many of its neighbors, the 2015 State of the Community report shows.
But it has a lot of work to do if it wants to attract more retail dollars and meet local housing, work and transportation needs.
“Orange County is the No. 1 community to live in,” said Aaron Nelson, president and chief executive officer of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, but it needs a better story about what makes it unique, such as the university and its research, tech opportunities and entrepreneurship.
“It’s a little bit like UNC women’s soccer,” he said. “It’s really the best of the best of the best, and we’re winning 18 of the 19 championships, but everybody else gets better, and now they got better faster, and now it’s competitive.”
Local business, government and community leaders gathered Thursday at UNC’s Friday Center to hear the eighth annual report, which tracks social, economic and health-related data to show how the county is progressing over time and compared to its neighbors.
Health and safety measures were great news for the county last year, Nelson said. Violent crime was down, as was the frequency of all cancers for the first time in a long time, he said. Teen pregnancy went “through the floor,” while infant mortality rate was about half of what the state has seen, he said.
The number of children living in poverty also is falling – from 4,258 in 2012 to 3,820 in 2013 – while the number receiving free and reduced-price lunch at school, a common poverty indicator, stayed roughly the same. Fewer Orange County families are receiving food stamps this year, he said.
The county’s population continues to grow at a rapid clip – roughly 5 percent between 2010 and 2014 – Nelson said. Carrboro was the fastest-growing town – growing 7.2 percent – followed by Hillsborough, with 4.9 percent growth and Chapel Hill with 3.7 percent, he said.
Roughly 277,300 people are expected to live in Orange County by 2050, he said, about 41 percent of those in Chapel Hill and 19 percent in Carrboro. The biggest surprise could be the two square miles of Mebane that lies in Orange County, he said, where more than 42,000 people could live in 2050.
That’s still slower than the expected growth in neighboring counties and the local growth over the last 30 years, he said.
“Compared to Wake County, we are growing dramatically slower,” he said. “We will only take 5 to 7 percent of the total population growth (of roughly a million people) expected for the entire Triangle.”
Housing, not surprisingly, will continue to be a challenge, he said. Rents are higher across the board in Orange County than in the rest of the state, while the county’s housing stock averages 30 years old.
The number of home sales fell to 1,432 last year from 1,628 in 2013, the highest number since the recession. The average home price rose, however, to $330,054, while the price per square foot was almost 50 percent higher than in Durham. There are 17 affordable units for every 100 people, he said.
Chatham County, for the first year, reported the most expensive home sale prices at $334,552, he said. Chatham also surpassed Orange County in per capita income, he said.
Orange County’s economy is showing some positive signs, Nelson said. State government still contributes the biggest share – $1.6 billion – of the county’s $6 billion gross domestic product, he said. GDP is the monetary value of goods and services being produced.
The county’s 735 registered nonprofit groups followed from a distance with $193 million in collective output.
But two-thirds of Orange County residents still leave the county for work, he said, while roughly 40,000 commute from other counties to work here. That will continue to pose challenges for local and regional transportation planning, he said.
Orange County also topped the billion-dollar mark again last year in taxable sales, reaching $1.477 billion, he said. However, the retail sales gap – the difference in demand and sales – also grew, from $728 million in 2012 to $866.5 million in 2014, he said.
Nearby counties saw their retail sales gap shrink or grow in the opposite direction during that same period, he said. Alamance County, for instance, met $153.8 million in retail sales demand from other counties in 2013. That grew to $338.9 million last year, he said.
You can read the 2015 State of the Community report at slideshare.net/carolinachamber.