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Triangle Business Journal Interview with Aaron Nelson,

Chapel Hill Chamber President and CEO


Aaron Nelson majored in philosophy as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill and has since transitioned to the leader of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.

It’s his role to listen to the 900 members of the chamber, to connect that with the wishes of the broader community, and to help Chapel Hill and Carrboro retain their small-town charm – all while embracing the dramatic changes happening across the Triangle.

How different is the market now from when you became CEO in 2001? The local economy is far more dynamic. Chapel Hill and Carrboro have been evolving from a university-only community to one with diverse and vibrant downtowns, a growing health care and technology center, and one that not only births great companies but also finds a way to keep them and help them grow.

What challenges do those changes present for the chamber? Back in 2001, one of the biggest challenges for our local merchants was having enough parking nearby, as well as competing with the new Streets at Southpoint (2002) and other retail being built just outside of the city limits.

While those challenges remain, now small business owners are also up against online shopping with the convenient, one-click next-day free delivery. New technologies mean new realities for local businesses, and to me, that means it’s more important than ever to develop downtowns with residential density and cultural and entertainment destinations to drive shoppers and visitors downtown.

How has Chapel Hill evolved when it comes to local businesses? Over the last 20 years, we have enjoyed a 180-degree evolution in Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s support for local business and economic development.

We deserved a well-earned reputation that it was hard to do business here, but that has entirely changed. Chapel Hill’s economic development strategy, commitment to being open to business and its indefatigable director, Dwight Basset, has put Chapel Hill back on the map with like cities from across the nation as a great place to grow and start a business.

Carrboro has a goal of doubling the commercial tax base and Orange County, under the seasoned economic development leadership of director Steve Brantley, is actively competing for economic investment – and winning.

Today, Chapel Hill has the most pro-business mayor in Pam Hemminger and pro-business Town Council. Like a restaurant where you may have had a bad meal a long time ago, greater Chapel Hill wants you to give us another try – we have new ownership, a new chef and a new menu.

How does Chapel Hill retain its sense of identity? Chapel Hill is like most college towns – residents think it was the perfect the day they moved here, and students think it was perfect they day they left. The reality is that we have always been growing and changing, and we have successfully found a way to do it while retaining our culture, identity and our soul.

University Square and Granville Towers replaced the high school on Franklin Street in the 1960s, University Mall was born in the 1980s, and Southern Village in the 1990s. Yet after each of these major changes, Chapel Hill remained its charming, progressive, rambunctious self.

Tell us about growth in your market. Over the last decade, Chapel Hill’s annual population growth is less than 1 percent and Orange County is on track for the 2010s to be one of the slowest-growing decades since the 1960s.

It is our surrounding counties (Durham, Chatham) that are growing rapidly, while our growth has remained relatively flat. As they grow, these neighboring counties are also improving their public educational achievement and seeing increasing median home sales prices – two things Chapel Hill has traditionally hung it’s hat on as best-in-class.

Locally, we are talking a lot about what it means and what it takes to maintain our competitive advantage.

What are the primary concerns you hear from members? The key challenges we are hearing now include talent retention and attraction, customer acquisition, cost of operation (health care, rent, tech), and marketing/messaging with declining local media and the increasing din of social media. We are committed to addressing them all and doing everything in our power to help our members thrive.

What about affordable housing? Having an affordable housing stock, proximate to employment centers, is critical to retaining and attracting workers and reducing the need for transportation infrastructure investments. 

Traditional affordable housing solutions (mostly focused on ownership), while innovative when created and successful by many measures, have delivered only a few dozen local units per year, and each new unit requires as much as $120,000 in public and private subsidy. ...

It’s time for new tools and partnerships that can harness the power of our existing supply of market rate rental housing (and the thousands of new market rate units in the pipeline). We are working with partners to promote a concept called “master leasing” that can quickly get people into affordable and safe housing at a much lower price.

Is there something special in your office? Ten years ago, Sonja, Max, and Atlee tested out the new office color copy machine and made a copy of their hands. It’s framed in my office.

Any advice for people starting their own business? Plan well. Seek advice. Ask lots of questions. Think before jumping in. And once you jump in, swim like hell. But don’t be too busy to take a moment to look up and look for partners and to ask for help. Never be too busy swimming to talk about stroke technique.

And if you like blue skies, good food, school spirit and a small-town feel with big-city amenities that is near an international airport and conveniently situated next to a research university and the world-renowned Research Triangle Park, then come do it in Chapel Hill.

By Dane Huffman, Managing Editor, Triangle Business Journal
Photo Credit: Taylor McDonald