It’s been a pleasure to serve Orange County for the past four years, and it’s been an honor to live in Chapel Hill, along with my family, for nearly 20 years. Raising children while tending to the needs of an aging parent has given me a unique vantage from which to view many of the wonderful services our community provides. But I’m also well aware of its costs. Diversifying our economy, protecting school funding and growing affordable and senior housing are my priorities.
But how much should our residents have to pay for this?
I believe living here should be affordable and welcoming for all: new graduates, teachers, retirees and a diversified population. I’m concerned that 85 percent of our tax base is derived from property taxes, and know that we must bring in new industry. Whether that industry is tourism, commercial development or entrepreneurial start-ups, I don’t want our residents to have to leave Orange County in order to have to manage their monthly bills.
And our economy is diversifying. In 2014, the Board of County Commissioners announced the recruitment of Morinaga, a Japanese candy manufacturer. The company has invested $48 million in a new facility that will employ 90 people. This kind of light manufacturing is a great match for our economic development zones.
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I sit on the board for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, which gives me a perspective on the growing jobs in the hospitality community. Our local tourism industry employs residents at all wage and skill levels and fuels a strong tax base. Tourism – the cleanest, greenest industry out there – is an economic engine for Orange County. In 2014 it pumped $181 million into our economy. Many people say, “Wouldn’t they visit anyway? Wouldn’t they come for UNC?” The answer is, yes, they come for UNC – but then they’re lured to surrounding communities where serious marketing efforts are underway to fill new hotels and restaurants. Sometimes you have to work to keep a Tar Heel at home.
UNC is the best public university in the nation, and many of its brilliant graduates want to stay here. Industries begin in some of the most unlikely places: one I know of began in a custodial closet in Dey Hall. I continue to work with community partners to encourage start-up companies who can work with our local incubator spaces (we have five) and launch a business that allows them to stay, play and raise their families in Orange County. I am proud that our board helped fast track two small business grant programs, funded by the one-quarter cent sales tax funds, called Article 46 funds, to aide existing business investment and early-stage venture growth.
Finally, I remain committed to nurturing what is so extraordinary about Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County.
Some of our greatest strengths are intangible. Many of us came here for a visit and stayed for life. We found something here that spoke to us. Whether it’s the people, the natural beauty, the art, the music or, yes, the food, there is something here for all of us. I don’t want to lose an ounce of what makes us spectacular. I will continue to fight for the right balance of growth, protection of cultural resources and affordable living for seniors.
I love Orange County. I look forward to continuing to protect what is great about Orange County for the next four years while creating new opportunities, and I ask for your support.
Penny Rich is seeking re-election as Orange County commissioner – District 1.