Chapel Hill: Opinion

Chapel Hill-Carrboro moving forward on economic development

By Robert Saunders

Thank you to the nearly 400 business and community leaders who joined the Chamber of Commerce at its annual meeting last month. Formed as the Chapel Hill Merchants Association in 1942, your chamber has been effectively serving our community and our economy for 73 years.

Last year was one of our most successful ever, both in terms of organizational growth and strength, but also in terms of successfully advocating for needed economic and community development policies and projects.

While the pace of change may appear to be slow – our community is moving forward. At the chamber, we are glad that economic development is no longer a dirty word, but instead the adopted strategy to ensure long-term community success.

To advance economic and community success, your chamber has identified three priorities for the coming year. We will advocate for improving infrastructure. We will strengthen business ties to education in the public schools, community colleges and the university. And we will cheerlead innovation as a strategy to create new jobs for our region.

Regarding infrastructure, we must ensure that the energy, water, transportation and broadband are available to maintain our quality of life as we grow. We need to improve and adopt the downtown master plan, secure the high-speed Internet to fuel innovation, and actively recruit and retain employers, retailers and talent.

To improve education, business must play a leading role on a state and local level. Chambers across the state all know the important link between economic growth and education. Locally, we have a great track record of excellence in education, but we must work even harder to maintain our position at the top and to remain as good as we think we are.

The measure of success for our local schools should not be whether our high school students are admitted to Harvard or Yale, or how many Morehead, Park or A.B. Duke scholars we produce. The measure of success should be whether every high school graduate is on track for the work he or she wants to do in life, and whether students are prepared to support their families and to be good citizens.

And we must foster innovation: the incubation, maturation and acceleration of new business. At the chamber, we are not just interested in innovation in business or in university research, but also innovation in government and housing and transportation, in job growth and economic development.

We are already increasing our competitiveness with respect to incubators and accelerators with over, 24,000 square feet of incubator and accelerator space serving 145 enterprises. Facilities like Launch, the Cube, 1789 Venture Lab, Midway Business Center, Perch Studios and the Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center are cooking up great new enterprises every day.

But we can do more, by advocating for better work space for innovative companies already here as well as affordable, workforce housing for their employees. We can also do more to market our region to convince innovative companies to relocate to our community.

Why all this concern about infrastructure, education and innovation – because it is necessary to support economic growth and we need to have continued economic growth to increase the tax base so we can afford the community we want and aspire to be.

Our chamber team invites you to team with us. As signs around town say, let us choose our own future. Let’s choose to be a vibrant community – not just a sleepy university town, not just a quiet retirement community, not just a great place to raise kids – but as a vibrant, innovative, thriving center in our region, the pro-business, left angle of the Triangle.

Brooks Pierce partner Robert Saunders is the chairman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce board of directors for 2015.