Published: Apr 03, 2012 07:38 PM
Modified: Apr 03, 2012 07:42 PM
Dwight Bassett enjoys working with wood in his spare time. Chapel Hills former economic development officer, who recently departed for a similar job in Raleigh, once carved a players hand holding a basketball out of a broken Franklin Street tree as an impromptu commemoration of UNCs 2009 national mens basketball championship.
As a woodsmith, Dwight understands special skills are needed when one is working against the grain, especially when dealing with hardwood. Those skills were tested when Dwight was hired five years ago to promote economic development here in a town that for decades had obstinately and notoriously fought against it.
As he was leaving, Dwight sat down to reflect on how Chapel Hill has grown, literally and figuratively, during his half decade here, and the role he had in that change.
This was not Dwights first assignment with special challenges. Chapel Hill thinks this is a Chapel Hill related issue, but there are many communities that struggle with the balance of what it is.
Previously he spearheaded the complex, and successful, revitalization of the Old Town section of Rock Hill, S.C., where there was a similar disconnect between planning and the development community. The manager there had charged him with finding a way to do things differently, that can maintain our interests while being more facilitative of much needed development.
Dwight succeeded, in part because he was very good about balancing both sides understanding the development perspective on the one hand while trying to maintain that value and interest on the other hand.
When he arrived in Chapel Hill, both town staff and the business community didnt initially accept him. To staff, it felt like an outsider trying to break open the doors to a private meeting, while many in the business community told him youre clueless, you dont get it, you dont understand what needs to be done.
Making progress required building one-on-one relationships with each. To gain trust, both groups had to understand he understood their needs. Over time, staff realized I represent the same value system weve been talking about for decades. Meanwhile, business owners saw that personally I did get it, my plans did get it, and the outcomes were spot on what their expectations were.
The result? Dwight developed incredibly strong working relationships with staff and some of his most vocal critics became his closest associates in the business community.
Chapel Hill was a community that had not been having conversations about economic development, Dwight explains. They talked about development as we want it and we dont want it, but they had not talked about it in a proactive way of what can we do about it.
So Dwights job became constructing a strategy that invited economic development within Chapel Hill values, then getting all parties to be actively engaged with directly impacting the outcome.
Day one, Town Manager Roger Stancil charged Dwight with three goals: From existing town plans, develop an economic development strategy we can share and gain consensus from the council and staff. Assist in review of development process and identify process improvements. Begin to identify specific projects and work on them. Dwight cites progress in all three areas.
First, he initiated a series of studies so there would be no argument about facts. Analyses of housing stock, retail and office space provided key benchmarks. Then came a barriers study to identify inefficiencies in the review process. Now complete applications are prioritized and all parties share all files electronically, with further improvements to come. Finally, he tackled specific small area plans to provide a clear vision for what we wanted and what developers could expect.
His first plan was for Ephesus Church-Fordham Road, and Dwight points to it as a blueprint for how planning should be done.
We didnt wait for the development community to come in. We identified five key sites that should be redeveloped. Then we identified how we could accommodate all that growth if it could happen. We came out of that planning process with all five parcels sold and development proposals coming forward. It really is almost amazing.
Five years ago Chapel Hill argued about whether we should have economic development or not. Now its about what kind, how much and where should we have it. Dwight notes success in shifting the conversation from closed to open.
To move forward, Dwight advises, its going to be important for the town manager, the council, and my successor to step it up to the next level. Its easy to say were open for business and open to business. Now comes the point where weve got to start living it on a daily basis.