Hillsborough Leaders Strengthen Ties, Learn from Others
Monday, Oct. 3, 2016
A three-day visit last week to Boulder and Denver, Colorado, has left five Hillsborough leaders with greater insight into how other communities handle key municipal issues and with stronger relationships in the Triangle.
Participating in the 2016 Inter-City Visit and Leadership Conference — organized by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce — were Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens, Mayor Pro Tem Kathleen Ferguson, commissioners Mark Bell and Jenn Weaver and Planning Director and Assistant Town Manager Margaret Hauth.
Among a number of activities, the visit and conference Sept. 25-27 included a tour of a transit-oriented development, Boulder Junction; a discussion of the workforce and affordable housing in a high-cost market; and discussions on creating tourism destinations and a diverse business base. Mixed in with the discussions on common issues were visits to sites to see implemented strategies and results.
“Learning about Boulder’s integrated systemic approach to planning, housing, transportation and sustainability is inspiring,” Ferguson said, “particularly after seeing how Boulder has integrated bike, pedestrian, rail, bus rapid transit, and autos throughout their city and how we have the opportunity to incorporate many of the same considerations with our train station and surrounding land.”
The Town of Hillsborough owns 20 acres in Central Hillsborough — bordered by Churton Street and U.S. 70-A — that is to be developed into a rail station. In addition to seeing how Boulder transformed 11 acres that needed redevelopment by using a public-private partnership, town leaders were able to learn how Boulder created its request for proposals for the project.
Stevens, who has participated in six inter-city visits as Hillsborough’s mayor, noted that the biennial event is always productive as it generates new ideas, strategies to avoid and stronger working relationships with others in the Triangle. In addition, participants often discover potential resources within the region from each other.
“When you are looking at another community suddenly your own community comes into sharper focus,” he said.
Another frequent outcome of the visit is a renewed appreciation for what the town does have.
“One thing that was very striking is that Boulder doesn’t have a whole lot of ethnic or cultural diversity,” the mayor said. “It really put an emphasis on how really important our community’s diversity is.”
Weaver added, “In contrast to Boulder, Hillsborough’s population is much more racially and economically diverse. Though we have a long ways to go in having a more equitable community, we are aware of the need, trying to do better, and value our community’s broad diversity as one of its greatest assets.”
Among trip takeaways
A need to maintain affordable housing — The average price of a single-family, detached house in Boulder is $900,000. Contributing to the high housing costs are Boulder’s desirability; its commitment to open space with a boundary that circles the city; its use of nearly all buildable space within city limits; and its inability to maintain adequate housing stock over time.
“They do have an extensive affordable housing program, but it is not nearly enough, and it will never be enough to bring down home prices to even half what they are now,” Weaver said. “This is a critical lesson for Hillsborough. We don’t want sprawl, we do want open space, and we do not want to find ourselves in Boulder’s situation down the road. This means we need to maintain adequate housing stock and incorporate affordable housing whenever we can. When it comes to environmental sustainability and affordability, ‘density is the new open space,’ as one of the speakers said.”
Boulder does have an aggressive affordable housing program that has led to desirable, affordable neighborhoods.
“Faced with similar regulatory restrictions that North Carolina cities face, Boulder has successfully implemented both rental and ownership opportunities for citizens across the income spectrum, highlighting what may be possible as we grow collaborations with Orange County and our sister towns,” Ferguson said.
Ideas for a strong and diverse business base — Boulder has an economic development system that encourages a diverse business base. Successful businesses mentor startups, and leaders participate in government through advisory boards and public-private partnership.
Boulder’s entrepreneurial system “shows that a vibrant and innovative startup center isn't restricted by size,” Ferguson said.
Bell added, “Boulder has a diverse approach to business development and innovation that is relevant to the environment in Hillsborough, Orange County, and the RTP areas. I believe we were all very impressed with their commitment to business growth and we look forward to exploring some of these ideas in Hillsborough.”
Past Inter-City Visits have taken town leaders to Asheville; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Athens, Georgia; Bloomington, Indiana; Greenville, S.C.; and Madison, Wisconsin. The trips are organized by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s charitable arm — Partnership for a Sustainable Community. Hillsborough’s mayor has served as an honorary co-chairman for each visit.
“The lessons learned on these trips are ones that are applicable to all of us who live in Orange County and the Triangle region,” said Kristen Smith, the chamber’s vice president for advocacy and engagement. “Additionally, the Inter-City Visit is also an opportunity for Chapel Hill and Carrboro community and business leaders to get to better know our northern neighbors, encouraging cross-community collaboration in the future.”
That building of relationships and the chance to actively see what other communities are doing make the trip important, Hillsborough’s mayor said.
“It’s a nontrivial investment that we made on this trip,” Stevens said, “but the investment is well worth it.”
Additional photos from the trip will be available on the town's Facebook page.