Mayors and senior staff members from across the nation found common ground at this week’s Mayor’s Innovation Project at the Carolina Inn on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
Cities large and small face similar issues every day. The two-day mayors’ conference is held twice a year to help them learn what’s working in other places, said managing director Satya Rhodes-Conway.
The Mayor’s Innovation Project is an education network committed to better government, environmental and economic sustainability and a better quality of life. It was founded in 2005 by Dave Cieslewicz, then the mayor of Madison, Wis., and Joel Rogers, a University of Wisconsin at Madison professor and director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.
About half of the conference attendees toured two entrepreneurial centers – the Launch accelerator and 1789 Venture Lab incubator – Friday in downtown Chapel Hill.
Mayor Matthew Appelbaum, of Boulder, Colo., said the event gives him new ideas and connections to experienced leaders he can turn to when his city faces challenges.
“I’ve talked with the Chapel Hill mayor (Mark Kleinschmidt), but also other people, about homelessness; I’ve talked with them about housing; I’ve talked with them about transportation; I’ve talked with them about a whole variety of issues that Boulder is heavily engaged in or about to have another community discussion in,” Appelbaum said. “It’s been fascinating to learn what they’re doing.”
“It’s very helpful to hear what didn’t work,” added Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, who chatted with Appelbaum during the tour about her city’s own experience with downtown redevelopment.
Asheville is drafting a form-based code to guide future redevelopment of its Haywood Road historic, commercial and residential corridor.
The two were among roughly 70 people, including 30 mayors, from North Carolina cities and as far away as Vermont, Wisconsin, Idaho and Tennessee who attended the invitation-only event. Local leaders and staff members, including Town Council member Sally Greene and Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle, helped lead workshops on affordable housing, land use and transportation, among other topics.
Other local leaders joined the visitors for after-hours social gatherings. The public and media are traditionally not invited to the event, Rhodes-Conway said, but Chapel Hill officials negotiated to keep Friday’s incubator tour accessible to local media, she said.
Limiting access leaves mayors free to suggest innovative ideas without worrying their comments might be taken out of context in the newspaper or cause a public backlash at home, she said.
“We want to keep it small and intimate to have a really good, in-depth conversation,” Rhodes-Conway said.
She and others praised Chapel Hill’s efforts at reinventing itself and its downtown. Kleinschmidt was “a class act,” she said, tackling controversy head-on by presenting an advertisement that residents put in Wednesday’s Chapel Hill News critical of the town’s Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment district plans.
“He kicked off the entire event by saying ... ‘I love this place, we’re really proud of what we’re doing, but I know we’re not doing everything right, and I want to hear from you ... what’s your opinion?’” Rhodes-Conway said. “That just set the tone for all the conversations that followed.”
Chapel Hill launched its new form-based code July 1 to provide developers and town staff with a guideline for fast-tracking projects that meet specific design, landscaping and construction standards. The code eliminates most public hearings and lets the town manager approve or reject proposed plans.
The mayors took a bus tour of the Ephesus-Fordham district, plus Southern Village and the Obey Creek project site, on the town’s southern border.
Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens, who co-led a workshop on civic engagement, said leaders always hear from people who aren’t happy with an issue or a project, but it’s a never-ending challenge to get them involved at the beginning. Knowing what the community wants, however, is the first step to making positive changes, he said.
“None of us do it perfectly,” he said. “That’s the value of coming together and sharing ideas.”