Chapel Hill News

Hughes: Orange County should lead investment in education, economy, infrastructure

Supporting and expanding public education is the county’s biggest priority, Matt Hughes says, followed by economic development and keeping the community affordable for all families.

Hughes, a Hillsborough native who lives in Chapel Hill, is running for one at-large seat on the Orange County Board of Commissioners. Business owner Andy Cagle and homebuilder Mark Marcoplos also are running for the seat, which Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier will leave in December.

All Orange County voters cast ballots for the at-large seat. The winner, since no Republicans are running, will be decided in the March 15 primary. Early voting starts March 3.

Hughes has chaired the Orange County Democratic Party since 2011. On his campaign website, he credits the lessons he learned from his grandmother and the state’s Head Start program with helping him to overcome a number of challenges at a young age.

“Orange County has some of the best schools in the state, if not the nation,” Hughes said, “and we need to work to keep our schools fully funded.”

He would advocate for continued support of early childhood education and school funding, increasing teacher pay, tools to retrain the workforce and the expansion of Durham Tech’s Orange County campus.

“County commissioners should continue our close collaboration with our Boards of Education to address issues in our schools and the broader community, especially as it relates to retaining our high-quality teachers and protecting public education,” Hughes said. “Moving forward, I will advocate for greater collaboration regarding our county’s budgetary processes and doing a better job keeping up with our districts’ maintenance needs. I also believe the county commissioners must work collaboratively with our two school districts on issues relating to economic development, planning and housing.”

See the full interview at

The $125 million November bond addresses about a third of the repair and renovation needs in both school districts. How would you address the remaining needs?

It is unfortunate that we have delayed maintenance and repairs for our schools to such an extent that the districts need a bond to begin to make a serious dent in what the facilities need.

Hughes: I am committed to prioritizing our school maintenance needs over the next five to 10 years with a possible increase of the overall education budget to accomplish it. Furthermore, we could finance some of the remaining projects through the usual capital investment process and prioritizing those projects accordingly.

The General Assembly has not kept pace with our education needs, which is one reason we have neglected the capital needs of our school districts. The repair and renovation needs of our districts are not just about the aesthetics of our school buildings, but a matter of health and safety for our students. However, I do think we need to look at the school maintenance issue as an economic development opportunity. With as much maintenance as both districts need, I think there is an opening to create jobs as a result.  

Have the county’s three economic development districts – Buckhorn, Hillsborough and Durham/Eno – failed to do what was intended? If not, how would you propose filling them with business or industry?

Hughes: The economic development districts have not failed; they just have not been fully supported. We know that these districts are working because of the projects we have seen come to Orange County, or are expanding.

I believe that it is worth our while to have areas in our county that are poised for projects, because the necessary zoning and permitting has already been completed. Because businesses would not have to start the permitting and approval processes from scratch, we have a great opportunity to start business parks, much like what presently exists in surrounding counties.

Our economic development districts are an asset, but because we lack the infrastructure needed, we are still hampered. Rezoning and installing required infrastructure will put us on a better track. Nonetheless, we are finally saying Orange County is open for business.

What should the county’s role be in making sure there’s affordable housing for lower-income and working class families? Would you be willing to relax the rural buffer rules?

Hughes: Making Orange County affordable is paramount for keeping our community socio-economically diverse. Too many lower-income and working-class families find it difficult to live in Orange County. It should be the county that coordinates the response to the affordable housing issue with the municipalities and develop a countywide strategic plan for affordable housing. We should explore the construction of affordable housing units on county-owned land, such as the Greene Tract, as one possible solution of increasing the stock of affordable housing.

We also know that there are recent public-private partnerships that have been successful in implementing affordable housing, particularly in regards to seniors. Eno Haven, an affordable senior community located near the SportsPlex, has 76 units and was built with both public and private funds. We should also pursue workforce housing so that teachers, nurses, police officers and UNC housekeepers can not only work in our community, but live here, too. I do not believe that relaxing the rural buffer needs to be done to accomplish this and is a slippery slope that could lead to the undoing of the rural buffer and lead to unrestrained growth. 

Q: What issue would you raise during your first six months in office that no one else is talking about?

The county is working on the issue of broadband access, but I will continue to push for universal broadband access across the county. The issue of universal broadband access is not just one about people being able to watch Netflix or post on Facebook, but is an issue that has economic and educational implications. Small business owners need access to high-speed internet in order to compete across the region and state. We have students in Orange County Schools who have a laptop as part of a district-wide initiative and yet cannot do assignments and projects because they lack adequate internet access.

Orange County is a large county with a significant rural population that lacks access to high-speed internet. I believe the county should work with electric utilities to encourage the installation of fiber optic lines that will provide high-speed internet and encourage those utilities to work with telecom companies to manage the networks. There is no reason why Orange County, with the resources we have available, should not have broadband internet from one end of the county to the other.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Meet the candidate

Name: Matt Hughes

Age: 25

Address: Drew Hill Lane, Chapel Hill

Contact:, 919-928-4480

Party affiliation: Democrat

Career: UNC administrator

Political activities: Orange County Democratic Party chairman since 2011

Community activities: KidsCope Advisory Council, Orange County Human Relations Commission and Board of Adjustment, Raising Achievement and Closing the Gaps Oversight Committee for Orange County Schools, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Branch of the NAACP, Schley Grange