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Ellie Kinnaird: The big-box connection

November 26, 2013 

What do affordable housing, big-box stores and taxes have in common?


Taxes pay for the services we want: schools, parks, police and fire protection, garbage collection and recycling, social services for those in need, planning for the type of communities we want to be, and yes, affordable housing.

They come from industrial, commercial and property taxes on businesses and homeowners and retail sales taxes.

But in Orange County and our towns, except Hillsborough, 85 percent of our property taxes comes from homeowners, a huge burden. When there is not enough revenue to pay for the services we are committed to, taxes have to be raised and lower-income people who can’t afford to live here either have to move away or use affordable or subsidized housing provided by the government.

Only recently have we begun to address the relationship between adequate tax revenue and government services. But I am not sure the message is getting through to most people who don’t want big box stores to mar their leafy communities.

Because there are so few shopping opportunities in our area, (Dillard’s, our last department store in southern Orange County, is closing), we spend our money at Durham’s New Hope Commons, Southpoint, Southsquare, Alamance’s Tanger Outlets, and Chatham’s Wal-Mart. Those counties reap the benefit from their diverse commercial base, while our tax base shrinks. The Chamber of Commerce reported that $97.3 million of our consumer spending last year went outside Orange County to our neighbors. And they have lots of affordable housing, while providing thousands of jobs.

There is just so much one can buy from small, boutique stores whose mom and pop owners can’t afford to provide health insurance for their employees. These delightful shops create our lovely ambiance, but they can’t provide the taxes of a Target. So we travel outside the county to shop for basics and big items.

Our towns have pledged to reduce our carbon footprint, but every time we drive to Durham, or Alamance or Chatham counties, we enlarge it exponentially.

For years, the philosophy prevailed that commercial development and especially big boxes didn’t fit our “village.” So no efforts were made and existing economic development sites had no infrastructure to attract commercial development. New Hope Commons was planned for the Chapel Hill side of I-40, but went to Durham, which welcomed it. Tanger Outlets should have been built at the Buckhorn side of I-85, but instead went to Alamance, which had a site prepared and ready. Recently, a Chapel Hill Town Council member said that if residents want a bedroom community, they should say so. Well, they have said so.

Everyone laments the lack of affordable housing so they study affordable housing with task forces and reports and meetings and speeches year after year. Only now has the attitude begun to change to remedy the situation.

I am pleased that our governments are now committed to reversing this trend. There is real leadership to change the formula. Orange County has secured a manufacturing plant, and planning for the future of the Ephesus Church/Fordham Boulevard (U.S. 15-501) corridor is moving forward to encourage commercial economic development. And I might even get the Costco I have been longing for for years.

Ellie Kinnaird is a former N.C. state senator and mayor of Carrboro. She can be reached at

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