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Community Profile

Right: The new North Carolina Children's Hospital opened  last fall in Chapel Hill with the Women's Hospital at a combined cost of $160 million

Orange County celebrates its rich heritage
while hurriedly building an enlightened future

By Lawrence Bivens

Exactly two and a half centuries ago, newly arriving settlers in the Piedmont gathered at a site along the Eno River to launch the First Colonial Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions. It was an event that marked the creation of Orange County, then a land that stretched from Durham to Greensboro as far north as the Virginia border. History making soon became second nature to the county that would later be home to Regulators, patriots and pioneers of one brand or other.

Today, in many respects, the story of Orange County is just beginning. It long ago gave up most of its lands, carving its original 3,500 square-mile expanse into the 400 that we now know. But pioneering traditions endure — now taking the form of world-class healthcare research and practice, high-tech start-ups, enviable educational institutions at all levels, thriving literary and artistic organizations and “stacked” multi-purpose communities of tomorrow.

There is also the county’s bucolic side. Along its meandering, foliage-covered hills are farmhouses, barns and church spires that have largely been untouched by time. Nearly one in five acres is used for livestock grazing, dairy farming, horticulture, and the production of row crops and forest products. The marriage of ancient rural values and forward-thinking politics have yielded local policies that protect trees and greenspace, encourage the building of neighborhoods that are walkable and bicycle-friendly, foster the start-up of innovative companies and preserve one of the county’s most visible assets: an unbeatable quality of life.

“A lot of what makes us special is the unique mixture of people here,” explains Joe Phelps, mayor of Hillsborough and a lifelong county resident. “There are southern people who’ve been here forever and there are newcomers who’ve also found a home here.” He adds that fate has blessed Orange County with an ideal location. Hillsborough, its county seat, is nestled at the confluence of two interstate highways, and most residents are within easy access to the jobs and big-city amenities of both the Piedmont Triad and the Research Triangle.

County leaders aren’t banking on location and legacy alone. There is, in economic development terms, good product here. Lands in the county’s mid-section have been divvied up into three separate, and equally attractive, economic development districts. There’s Buckhorn, located at Buckhorn Road at I-40/85 in Efland; Hillsborough, a business-oriented expanse at the intersection of Old Highway 86 and I-40; and Eno, well situated where U.S. Highway 70 and I-85 meet. Together, the privately owned districts comprise more than 2,500 acres. There is also the Meadowlands, one of several industrial parks, which is home to a wide array of businesses and industries, as well as medical and law offices, a nursing home and a large recreational center.

Rapid residential growth around Hillsborough and Efland have spurred plans for new commercial development near the intersection of I-85 and N.C. Highway 86. There, a large shopping center known as Hampton Point will become home to at least two major national retail names, complementing the array of small antiques dealers that draws locals as well as throngs of passing motorists. The project, a tangible product of a campaign to “Shop Orange First,” has been years in the making due to the county’s exacting standards on development.

“Orange County has a unique values structure when it comes to development,” explains Jack Smyre, owner of The Design Response, a planning and engineering firm that has worked on numerous projects in the county. “Local officials are thoughtful and deliberative in all their actions, and I think that’s a very positive thing.” His Cary-based company is now working closely with local leaders in Orange County on gaining approval for a 330-acre mixed-use development called Waterstone, not far from Hampton Point. The project will have retail units, a range of residential options, high-quality office space and other components such as a day care center, all neatly tied together in a dense, walkable design often referred to as the “New Urbanism.”

The Waterstone project grew out of efforts to level the county’s lopsided tax base. Currently, only about 14 percent of Orange County’s revenues are received from non-residential sources. In adjacent Durham County, for example, non-residential taxpayers comprise 40 percent of the tax base. “It was one thing to talk about shopping Orange first,” Smyre says. “But much of the problem was there really wasn’t a place to shop.” Hampton Point and Waterstone are thus the first steps toward keeping consumer dollars in the county and cultivating commercial product — from retail to Class A office space — that can grow the local job base.

“This is a community that wants to attract responsible, high-wage, low-impact businesses,” says Aaron Nelson, executive director of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, one of two chambers serving the county. As recently as two years ago, there was little the county could offer in terms of Class A office space. But the completion of several office complexes has opened up new opportunities for businesses that want to make Orange County their home. “There’s plenty of good product available now,” says Nelson, whose membership rolls have been growing at an impressive clip since arriving at the chamber in early 2001.

The abundance of adequate commercial space already has led one major company to move its corporate headquarters to the county. In March, American Fibers and Yarns announced it would be relocating to The Campus on VilCom Circle, a convenient business park in northern Chapel Hill, from its previous home in suburban Atlanta. The company, which maintains a manufacturing site in Rocky Mount, makes specialty apparel products for surfers, divers and cyclists. The U.S. military also purchases the company’s lightweight weather-resistant fabrics. American Fibers’ headquarters will employ a staff of 20 or so, including human resources, finance, sales and marketing personnel. “It’s very exciting,” beams Diane Reid, the county’s economic development director. “The company just showed up here ready to make Chapel Hill its home base.”

Learn More About Orange County:
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Left: Meadowmont, a mixed-used community rising on the eastern side of Chapel Hill, is one of Orange County's newest developments

Offering New Ways of Living

Now that accommodations are available, there will likely be more arriving firms. Some are certain to be attracted by the appeal of Meadowmont, a new mixed-use community on the eastern edge of Chapel Hill. Consisting of office space, restaurants, stores, apartments, condominiums and single family homes, the community actually takes its cue from the high-density, centuries-old “town center” concept in existence before automobiles became ubiquitous. “This is truly the first modern live, work and play community in Orange County,” says Craig Davis, the Raleigh-based developer who was key to making the project a reality.

The response to Meadowmont has been encouraging. People of all ages and stages of life are eager to try a way of life that liberates them from their cars. “Our sales are thus far right on target,” Davis says. “It’s an education, though. People in New York and D.C. might be familiar with this type of living, but many people around here may never have experienced something like this.”

In addition to homes, stores, eateries and offices, Meadowmont will soon boast a cavernous wellness center, a hotel and a number of affordable housing units being developed by the county. Later this summer, construction will begin on The Cedars at Meadowmont, a 47-acre continuing care retirement community that will offer villas, veranda homes, individual cottages and a clubhouse. Also on-site will be an extensive health center offering assisted living and skilled nursing care. “We wanted to build a community that wasn’t isolated,” explains Tina McLeod, marketing director at The Cedars. “I think buyers also find the multi-generational aspect of it an asset to them.”

By law, such retirement “campuses” must pre-sell 70 percent of their capacity prior to initiating construction. For The Cedars, which began pre-selling in late 2000, that goal didn’t take long to accomplish. “About 85 percent of our buyers are from Chapel Hill or Durham,” McLeod continues, “and half of them have already retired here.” The remainder, she says, come from elsewhere in North Carolina, as well as California, Texas and Florida.

It is natural to think of Orange County and its hip hangouts as a haven for youth. But, in fact, since the 1980s, the county had quietly become something of a Mecca for “first wave” retirees — those fifty- and sixty-somethings looking for a more energetic environment than the typical gated Sunbelt retreats. “We’ve been ranked as one of the best retirement towns by several publications, and that’s a trend I see continuing,” economic development director Reid says. “Retirees are attracted by many of the same quality-of-life assets as everyone else: stimulating cultural and recreational options, educational opportunities and comfortable climate. But they can also count on having access to outstanding healthcare.”

“It’s one of the reasons the hospital is thriving,” according to Eric Munson, president and CEO of the UNC Hospitals, which in recent years has established contracts with a number of local retirement communities. “The care of seniors is a growth industry.” Alongside many other superlatives the hospital has received lately is a No. 18 ranking by AARP’s Modern Maturity in its listing of the nation’s top 50 hospitals.

Of course, the excellent healthcare available at UNC Hospitals extends to people of all ages. Over the past decade, Munson has led efforts to make the sprawling complex more user-friendly. “We see approximately 3,000 outpatients per day,” he says, “and we needed to have an environment that was more accessible.” Whereas in the past, users showing up for treatment found inadequate parking and a bewildering maze of unmarked passageways, they now arrive to new parking decks, golf cart shuttles and even valet parking. Patients and their families enter a central atrium area through one of five interconnected “gateways,” and there is now signage and mapping found throughout the complex.

Last fall, two new structures were unveiled that now house the North Carolina Women’s Hospital and the North Carolina Children’s Hospital. Constructed at a cost of $160 million, the two buildings offer an attractive, non-intimidating design. But more than that is the convenience they have brought. “We’ve been able to consolidate services that had been widely dispersed throughout the campus,” Munson says. “There is now one-stop-shopping for women and children across the entire spectrum of their healthcare needs.” Women’s health and pediatrics are both areas of increasing specialization for UNC Hospitals, which for years have been well-known for their excellence in the treatment of burns and blood disorders and in organ transplants. The hospitals are also moving into prominence in the fields of orthopedics, cancer services and cardiology. “We’re investing money and facilities in all these areas,” Munson says.

In addition to top-notch clinical resources, the hospitals also support the biotechnology ventures that are now routinely spinning out of the neighboring UNC School of Medicine. “The strength of all our health sciences — medicine, nursing, public health, dentistry and pharmacy — all play a key role in stimulating growth in the state’s biotech sector,” says James Moeser, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the dominant economic and social force in Orange County.

UNC Grapples with Growth

Beyond healthcare, the university is playing a central role in transforming North Carolina’s economy from its reliance on traditional manufacturing into one poised for prosperity in the Knowledge Age. As the state’s financial services industry has blossomed, for example, UNC’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business has established executive education programs in response to the emerging needs of North Carolina’s banks, brokerages and insurers. “Having a first-rate business school is absolutely critical to business and industry across the state,” Moeser adds. An example of that, he says, can be found in the school’s new “OneMBA” program, a 21-month MBA curriculum for executives that offers a global orientation. Designed in collaboration with four other top-ranked business schools around the world, the program is tailored for multinational business leaders, its coursework spanning the business cultures of Asia, Europe, and North and South America.

Now well into its third century and the nation’s oldest public university, UNC grapples with inevitable growing pains. There are pressures to preserve historic buildings, protect greenspace, avoid excessive encroachment into adjacent neighborhoods and reduce traffic — all while serving a growing student body that numbers 26,000. University officials have responded with a master plan that includes $1 billion in construction on the main campus in the coming decade. “We’re excited about it from both a functional as well as aesthetic standpoint,” Moeser says. It includes plans for new research and instructional facilities, underground parking and an “arts common” stretching from the Ackland Art Museum through Memorial Hall. That part of the plan, now in the early design phase, calls for a new pedestrian mall between Franklin Street and Cameron Avenue, along with the faithful restoration of several venerable theatres.

Even more exciting are plans for Carolina North, a new campus on the model of North Carolina State’s Centennial Campus that would be placed on the thousand-acre patch of turf that was until recently the Horace Williams Airport. “The vision there is one of partnership,” the chancellor says. Along with residential, research and classroom space, the new campus will house incubator facilities capable of supporting start-up enterprises. “The university offers tremendous resources to business,” Moeser says. “All we really lack is the space.” A task force comprised of university, county and municipal representatives, has been assembled to move the plan, now only in its infancy, forward. “This is a long-term plan,” he explains, “one that will take us into our next 100 or 200 years.”

Moeser, who has been chancellor since 2000, sees the university’s real strength in the fact that it offers both preeminent research programs and an environment that is conducive to the intellectual and personal growth of undergraduate students. “There is a stimulating, robust undergraduate culture here,” the chancellor says. It manifests itself tangibly in places such as the recently opened House Undergraduate Library, a cathedral-like building that was completed with the help of the state’s $3.1 billion higher education bond package. “It’s a state-of-the-art facility that combines digital and print media,” Moeser explains. Each space in the library is wired to the campus network, which is appropriate given the fact that since 2000 all arriving freshmen are required to own a laptop computer. But there is also an intangible dimension to the campus’ rich atmosphere. “In a very personal way, our students undergo a positive transforming experience here,” Moeser says, which he owes to “the spirit of this place.”

Jeffrey Hoffman wouldn’t disagree. As a Russian major at UNC in the early 1990s and later a law student, Hoffman recalls that transformation. “I learned a lot about myself,” he says. “It’s a great place to do that stage of growing up.” In fact, Hoffman became so attached to Chapel Hill that in 1995 he founded a company there. “No matter what I do, I don’t seem to be able to leave here,” says Hoffman, who is president of webslingerZ Inc., which designs web sites and online applications for a client list that includes UNC, Duke University, Nortel and the North Carolina Zoo. “It’s been a good place to start a technology company,” he continues. “You don’t have all the happenings of a New York, Chicago or L.A., but you don’t have the problems they’ve got either.”

Exceptional Public Schools

In terms of educational resources, there is more than just a deeply respected university here. The county is also well known nationally for its exceptional public schools. For students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School System, SAT scores are usually the state’s highest and dropout rates the lowest. In the latter case, initiatives like the Program to Reach Excellent Performance (PREP), the Continuing Education Evening Division (CEED) and the Phoenix Academy — each of which targets “at risk” students — are credited with the impressive results. PREP helps students succeed on end-of-course exams, while CEED enables kids who work during the school day or have other family commitments to attend evening classes. The Phoenix Academy is an alternative school for students with difficulties learning in traditional classroom settings and those given long-term suspensions from other area schools. “It was more [a case of] how can we meet the learning needs of students that aren’t succeeding,” explains Kim Hoke, a spokesperson for the school district. “I think it’s resulted in fewer kids feeling like they have no other alternative than to drop out.”

There are also strong community college offerings in Orange County courtesy of Durham Technical Community College. “Roughly 21 percent of our students are from Orange County,” says Phail Wynn, president of Durham Tech. And those numbers have grown sharply in recent years thanks to the college’s affordable tuition rates and the rapid residential growth that has occurred in Orange County. “Students also like our smaller class sizes and the flexibility they get in scheduling their courses,” adds Wynn, whose college offers day, evening and weekend classes.

But currently, Durham Tech’s Orange County presence is dispersed across 40 different sites, mostly middle and high schools in the county. On average days, the college’s Skills Development Center on Franklin Street hums like a beehive. “We’d like to consolidate our offerings in a single location that would complement the Skills Development Center,” Wynn says. And he is willing to put a sizable chunk of his college’s state bond funds into doing it. Durham Tech has committed $4 million of its bond proceeds into erecting an Orange County satellite campus, a figure that represents more than a quarter of the total funds Durham Tech is being allocated.

Wynn is working closely with the Orange County Board of Commissioners, which is expected to match the $4 million either in cash or through the donation of land. One site under consideration is the Waterstone development near Hillsborough, a move that would add yet another dimension to that project’s multi-purpose vision. Wynn is also talking to other officials in Orange County — public school leaders, social service personnel, economic developers and the like — about the types of programs the new campus should offer. “It’s going to happen,” Wynn says confidently. “It’s just a question of how quickly we can get there.”

Wynn and others hope to have a site selected by fall. Perhaps the announcement can even be made in conjunction with the September kickoff of the county’s semiquincentennial. “We’ve assembled an ‘Orange County 250’ committee that is taking the lead in organizing the yearlong event,” says Diane Reid, the county developer. Already planned is a walk re-enacting the journey from Moorefields to the courthouse in Hillsborough, complete with period customs and artifacts. Reid anticipates the festivities attracting heritage-seeking tourists from around the state. But it will also be valuable from an internal standpoint. “We want to encourage local residents to explore the county’s history:” she says, “how we got here and where we’re heading.”

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