Mayor Discusses Facing Change with Resilience
Preceded by poet laureates whose words pulled the audience into the past, Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens discussed facing change with resilience in his 13th annual State of the Town Address on Monday night.
“There is always going to be change,” Stevens told an audience of about 60 gathered April 22 at the Town Hall Annex. “Change in many ways is difficult, but it is something our town experiences on a year-by-year, decade-by-decade, century-by-century basis.”
Throughout the evening, he discussed the need for town government and the community to be able to work through, adapt and bounce back from change, including increased extreme weather events, limited resources, disruptions from construction, and a greater focus on mixed-use development.
Hillsborough Poet Laureate Dee Stribling and North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green visited the past and change in their respective poems “First Bones” and “who will be the messenger of this land.” With a nod to the arts as a part of Hillsborough’s identity — particularly in the 21st century — and a proclamation honoring Green, the mayor opened his address by sharing changes Hillsborough has experienced in the past year.
The listing provided on Earth Day included increased flooding of the Riverwalk greenway, the removal of the temporary Stickwork sculpture from Riverwalk following its collapse during a snow event, and the loss during a storm of Hillsborough’s oldest and largest tree, which will see new life as part of a downtown sculpture. The greenway was built to withstand flooding, the sapling sculpture lasted longer than expected, and the sculpture using wood from the Calvin Street tree is being commissioned in partnership with Orange County and the arts community.
State of the Town
Stevens reviewed the economic impact of the arts on the town. He noted the industry accounts for about $130 million of spending in Orange County, with about $5.6 million of that spent in Hillsborough, according to a 2017 State of the Arts of Orange County report.
The arts investment in Hillsborough resulted in audiences spending more than double that amount in the community, not counting admission into events — about $1.6 million spent by organizations and about $4 million spent by audiences. Carrboro organizations invest about $3.6 million in arts and see about $4.1 million in spending by audiences. In Chapel Hill, it is about $88.4 million in investment and about $28.6 million in spending received.
In Hillsborough, tourism and arts activities are promoted through revenue raised from a 1 percent tax on prepared food and beverages and a 3 percent occupancy tax, which raised more than $373,000 and about $69,000 respectively in the last fiscal year.
“Sometimes we think we want more business in Hillsborough,” Stevens said.
Yet the town has a commercial base of about 40% compared to the county’s 20% and some businesses are tucked away in business parks, he pointed out. “We have a pretty good economic base,” he said.
Showing a map of Orange County and Hillsborough’s jurisdiction, he noted that within the county, Hillsborough makes up about 1% of the acreage, 4% of the population, 4% of the residential tax value, and 14% of the commercial tax value. The map in the slideshow presentation attached below shows:
- Gray for Hillsborough’s jurisdiction.
- Blue for the boundary in which the town will consider extending water and sewer service.
- Pink for areas within the 27278 ZIP code, which have Hillsborough mailing addresses but are not in town limits.
Hillsborough has an operating budget of about $22 million, the mayor said, explaining that those dollars fall into two buckets:
- Enterprise funds provided by water and sewer fees and stormwater fees to cover the costs of those operations (about 48% and 3% respectively of the budget).
- A general fund provided mainly by taxes to pay for operations such as planning, public works and public safety (about 48% of the budget).
The water and sewer operations are not subsidized with public dollars, and the Water and Sewer Fund does not pay for anything other than water and sewer operations, Stevens said. “It is not a profit center,” he added.
He discussed current construction in the town, showing data that is prepared by the planning staff and available in the Hillsborough Board of Commissioners’ monthly meeting agenda packet. About 490 homes currently are approved but not complete; and of those, 300 are under construction. Some development projects were approved years ago, such as Bellevue Mill, which was approved in 2009.
Change and resilience
The mayor noted that people love living in Hillsborough, as evidenced by the 2017 Community Survey in which the town outperformed national averages and averages of other small towns in the level of satisfaction with the town as a place to live, visit, raise children and retire.
But, he said, there is significant anxiety about growth, traffic and losing Hillsborough’s character. “It’s part of our community conversation and part of the resilience we need to work on,” he said.
He suggested the issue of concern for Hillsborough is not growing too big but being affordable. He noted there is a limit to how much Hillsborough can grow due to a finite water supply, roads and geographical boundaries. Municipal population projections show a projection of about 13,000 people in Hillsborough in 2050, according to the 2015 State of the Community Report, prepared by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.
“What I worry about, what keeps me up at night is getting too expensive,” Stevens said, which was affirmed by members of the audience vocally and with nods. “Some of that has to do with a lot of forces out of our control, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything.”
He noted about a quarter of Hillsborough’s apartments are subsidized in some way and about 23 percent of single-family homes or townhomes are valued under $120,000 but expressed concerns of gentrification.
Some ways town leaders are trying to help with issues of affordability, Stevens said, include supporting a $15 minimum wage for Town of Hillsborough employees and focusing on mixed-use developments that provide a variety of housing stock and amenities, such as parks, public buildings and commercial areas. He noted the historic district is a mixed-use community that has been around for more than 250 years and said he sees the mixed land use as “a way of keeping the town character, making it livable and giving it at least our best shot at as much diversity and affordability as possible given what the market conditions are.”
Among highlights of what’s ahead for Hillsborough, the mayor noted there likely will be more unexpected disasters, many in the form of weather events. There also will be more construction, with the state working on the interstates and Churton Street and with the building of a railroad station and the redevelopment of the Daniel Boone Village area. No matter how beneficial these changes will be to the community, “there is still a price to pay,” Stevens said. “There is still disruption.”
Enormous demands also will be placed on the town’s resources, including on staff, the mayor said. “Right now the town budget is really, really tight, and it’s getting more and more expensive,” he said, explaining that recruiting good employees is costly and that construction costs are increasing astronomically.
In addition to enhancing its resiliency and risk management for unexpected events, town government also will need to reexamine its community visioning and focus more narrowly on its core services, the mayor said. He noted these primarily are public safety; water, sewer, stormwater and solid waste services; roads, sidewalks, greenways and parks; land-use regulation; and economic development.
“We want to help in so many ways as town government,” Stevens said. “As your mayor, your commissioners, we all care about every single thing that wants to happen in this town and what’s not part of our community, but we can’t do it all.”
The town’s purview of responsibilities is limited, he said, and staff and leaders must be diligent in focusing on those areas.
“If we do those things well,” Stevens said, “that helps all of us address some of the larger issues that are really bigger than the town.”
The community’s help
The mayor urged community members to stay informed and involved, to choose love over fear by meeting change with resiliency, and to take care of their town government the way they care for their nonprofit organizations, businesses and neighborhoods.
“The world has got some pretty big challenges right now,” he said, noting climate change, immigration, political distrust and unrest. “We have this wonderful little spot in Hillsborough that we can’t just say, ‘OK, I’m going to carve out here and just pretend that everything’s OK.’”
He noted changes in the community will be required and cited Weaver Street Market’s recent move to eliminate single-use paper and plastic bags at its registers as an example. The Hillsborough community likely will need to change how it thinks about neighborhoods and transportation, he said.
Fear inhibits hope, but perspective inhibits fear, he reminded the audience, encouraging them to remember they are messengers, as Green voiced earlier in the night.
“Taking a moment to breathe,” the mayor said, “taking a moment to remember that we belong, that we are messengers helps us choose love and to act out of love and not out of fear that this is going to happen to me, this is going to happen to my community.”
He ended the evening recounting how he shared a table at Cup a Joe with a person he didn’t know who likened the town’s growth to the growth of the coffee shop. Despite moving to a larger space with a kitchen and more tables, Cup a Joe remains a beloved space within Hillsborough that even more people can enjoy.
“That’s what Hillsborough’s going to be like,” Stevens said, noting that the community can rely on staff for their professional expertise in providing planning, water and sewer service, public safety and the town’s other core services.
“But it’s going to be on all of us as a community,” he said, “to embrace the change and to just share a table with each other in our neighborhoods and in our sweet town.”