When, in the spring of 2013, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina announced its plans to vacate their Chapel Hill headquarters, significant concerns were expressed about the loss of jobs and the fate of the site. The building has long been viewed as a Chapel Hill landmark, and the organization is a major employer. And while these concerns are certainly valid, we should view this departure as a major opportunity for our town.
In the past decade or more, we have seen Durham significantly revitalized. This revitalization has been driven in large part by the creative re-use of old buildings. Where there were once derelict and dilapidated tobacco factories and warehouses, we now have Brightleaf Square and the American Tobacco Campus. Significant further development of old buildings is planned in a Durham Innovation District that is moving forward.
For the most part, Chapel Hill has had a more fortunate economic history than Durham – we did not have an industrial base that withered and died. The downside of this is that we have no old, derelict building to rehabilitate. That is until now.
The Blue Cross building opened in 1973 and is, by most standards, obsolete, inflexible, energy inefficient, and costly to maintain. That is why they are leaving it for more modern facilities in Durham.
At the same time, we in Chapel Hill have a critical shortage of space for entrepreneurial activities, particularly the kind of space that start-ups need when they are ready to leave incubators such as Launch and 1789.
While the cost of renovating the building for modern Class A office space is prohibitive, it is exactly the kind of facility that could accommodate a whole variety of start-ups with minimal expense. It would not be deluxe and it would not be efficient, but it could serve our growing entrepreneurial sector extremely well.
Further, the building is located on a 30-plus acre campus in a prime part of town with ample space to add needed amenities. The campus could become the center of a whole entrepreneurial district, with new stores, restaurants, and other facilities that start-ups and their employees want.
It is close to the planned Gateway light rail station. And it could easily be connected to the emerging Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment area to create the truly walkable, bikeable area that entrepreneurs and other employers are increasingly seeking. It could become a job creation engine that would replace the Blue Cross jobs that the town is losing and then some.
Just as in Durham, accomplishing this will take cooperation and planning. The town needs to convene potential participants in such an undertaking UNC and/or UNC Health Care, one or more developers with experience in this type of undertaking, and, of course, Blue Cross. If we can do so, we can accomplish something truly special for our town and its residents.
Michael Parker lives in downtown Chapel Hill.