CHAPEL HILL — Collaboration and creativity are necessary if the town is to preserve the diversity and character that made it home to so many people, Maria Palmer said.
Palmer is one of nine candidates for four open seats on the Chapel Hill Town Council. Early voting starts Oct. 17; the general election is Nov. 5.
She and her husband Mike, a Siler City school teacher, have raised three children in Chapel Hill. Palmer, who grew up in Guatemala and Peru, works part time as a chaplain at Alamance Regional Medical Center in Burlington and is a Hispanic education and outreach consultant. She also works as a translator and client advocate with civil rights attorney Al McSurely.
In the past, Palmer has been a pastor, an educator and a college administrator, helping to start the state’s first Spanish language preschool and a Hispanic church, Iglesia Unida de Cristo, in Chapel Hill. She also has been a State Board of Education member, director of the N.C. A&T State University Multicultural Student Center in Greensboro and a Chapel Hill News columnist.
After 18 years, Palmer said she and her family still make sacrifices to live here.
“If you have money in Chapel Hill, you can live really well, but middle-class people in Chapel Hill are having a really hard time, between the taxes, housing costs and medical care,” she said.
Palmer said she learned from her children and their friends that there isn’t much for teens either. More cooperation among the town, schools and community partners is critical for providing a place to hang out, learn new skills or get a job, she said. The town could negotiate with the schools to use athletic fields for community recreation when teams aren’t practicing, she said.
The university is another untapped partner, especially for more affordable housing for university and UNC Hospitals employees, she said. Similar housing programs have worked in other college towns, she said. University students also need workplace skills and experience, which they could get by helping local groups and nonprofits, she said.
The town also could work with the county on solid waste, recycling, youth services and parks, among other issues, she said.
“I don’t think it’s a question of money. It’s a question of how we use our resources and partner with organizations,” she said.
Palmer said she wants to be a council member who takes an issue straight to the people responsible for fixing it. Residents complain a lot, but town staff does many good things, she said.
“The police department, community policing, the streets are so clean. I think we have the best garbage collectors anywhere,” she said.
One lingering hurdle is control, especially when it comes to development, she said. While some concerns are understandable, such as the opposition to seven stories in certain areas of town, the community needs to say what it wants, let go and move ahead, she said.
“I think deciding not to do something costs us. People think it doesn’t. They think, well, let’s be cautious and not jump into something, but by not deciding, you are wasting opportunities, you are wasting money, you are wasting the creative energy that is here now,” she said.
In the Central West focus area, for example, Palmer said she thinks the corner of Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard could reasonably handle three to five stories and preserve the green spaces. People want the town to remain as they remember it, but times and the town’s needs have changed, she said.
“Instead of trying to control everything, so it doesn’t change the way it feels and looks, let’s dream, let’s try to do things that actually meet the needs of the community, and do them in creative ways that are a plus for the town. We don’t have to compromise our values,” she said.