Buckner: A tale of two towns

November 15, 2013 


On the day Chapel Hill announced a 13-screen, luxury movie theater moving into University Mall, the town of Carrboro adopted a new municipal branding campaign, “It’s Carrboro: Feel Free.”

An interesting juxtaposition, don’t you think?

I first moved to Carrboro in 1980, five years after community activists rallied to prevent the Board of Aldermen from razing Carr Mill. At that time, it was a small, blue-collar town just beginning to show its current character.

Around that time they opened the Libba Cotten Bike Path and began actively supporting bicyclists throughout town. The site of the current Farmer’s Market was a baseball field where the local community brought out their lawn chairs and coolers to watch women’s softball in the evenings. Today, the local community brings out their blankets and picnics to watch hula hoopers and dancers on the Carr Mill lawn. Back then, the town came alive in the summer when students left and the carpenters, masons, and electricians came into town to party at The Station, Bullwinkle’s, and The Midnight Special. Today, the year-round variety of festivals and events brings people from all walks of life to wander the streets in search of fun.

Chapel Hill at that same time was truly a university town. Franklin Street existed primarily for students, but there was also the type of commerce that supported everyday life for the surrounding neighborhoods including Fowler’s Grocery, Belk’s, The Intimate Bookshop and the indispensable flower ladies. Those of us who lived in Carrboro depended on those stores the same as Chapel Hill residents did. Downtown was not just livable, but quite lively.

Today, while Carrboro holds tightly onto its funkiness despite changing demographics, Chapel Hill slowly but surely marches towards exclusivity, a change that often feels at odds with its history. While the mayor and Chamber of Commerce CEO were gushing over the new luxury movie theater, the Board of Alderman were instructing staff to make sure the style sheet for their new logo/slogan wasn’t too rigid and that users of the logo/slogan will “feel free” to be creative with it.

Despite Carrboro’s down-home approach to local governance, town staff and elected officials regularly introduce innovations that walk the tight rope between balancing growth and maintaining a small town feel and attitude. While they now have a six-story hotel in downtown with more redevelopment coming (hopefully including a DPAC-like arts venue), they also use their weekly meetings to individually recognize over 50 staff members who responded to the flooding emergency this past summer, energetically debate whether or not to pursue actions to reduce the number of cars coming to downtown as part of the upcoming parking plan, and weigh the pros and cons of including food waste collection as part of the to-be-negotiated recycling contract with Orange County.

Some residents in the northern, annexation area may still feel more closely aligned with Chapel Hill physically and culturally, and others haven’t figured out they live in Carrboro based on their Chapel Hill address. But my sense is that, for the most part, Carrboro-ians are generally happy with their government and their town. Although I no longer live inside the town limits, I am regularly thankful to live on the Carrboro side of Smith Level Road.

So thank you to retiring Mayor Mark Chilton, the Alderpeople, the dedicated staff, and the myriad of citizens who serve on citizen advisory boards. You all help keep Carrboro feeling free. Let’s leave the luxury theaters to the other side of the tracks.

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