Meet Thein Oo, and #MeetDowntown.

Like thousands of others, Thein Oo fled Burma to the safety of a refugee camp in Thailand. There he met the woman he would marry, Lweh Eh Paw, and, like so many others, they found a warm welcome here. Thein has been working at UNC-Chapel Hill as a housekeeper for four years, recently promoted to a team leader. They have two children, a five-year-old and a one-year old. The rent on their Carrboro townhouse has risen by $300. Happily, they have another option: they’re going to be Habitat homeowners. Their home will be built in the Northside neighborhood, as part of the Northside Neighborhood Initiative. This is the headline news from this morning’s annual meeting of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership.

The houseraising event will take place March 11, and between now and then, there will be “spirit raising” evenings at various local restaurants and bars. Stay tuned for more on that.

The Downtown Partnership is working with Habitat to build this home. What’s up with that? “We are a community that takes care of its people, and we put that love into action,” is how Partnership director Meg McGurk put it in making the announcement. The downtown economy prospers when people can afford to live nearby, Northside shares a historic connection to the downtown and to UNC, it’s all a web of connections.

Reflecting on her time working for the Partnership, whose offices look down toward Rosemary Street and across toward Franklin Street, Meg noted the increase of strollers and associated family members she sees on the sidewalks, as well as the cranes engaged in the construction of Carolina Square (formerly University Square) and the AC Marriott Hotel. She especially praised the achievement of new sidewalks and bike lanes on Rosemary Street–all of these being critical to the continuing evolution of our downtown.

Things are going very nicely in downtown Chapel Hill, we learned as the Partnership’s assistant director Bobby Funk took us through the numbers:

  • 77 restaurants
  • 54 service organizations
  • 26 retail shops
  • 11 cultural destinations
  • 15 bars

The occupancy rate is 95 percent, which is stunningly high, and the retention rate over five years is 81.5 percent.

A new sign ordinance, the result of the previous Town Council’s willingness to rethink Chapel Hill’s historic approach to signs, came to fruition last year, and it is a valuable new tool for downtown businesses. Further, businesses and property owners are eligible for grants to improve facades, signage, and the like–and last year, grantees took advantage of these funds to the tune of more than $800,000.

The Partnership provides key resources for Launch Chapel Hill, our successful start-up accelerator, which will next week announce its seventh cohort of new businesses.

Second Friday Art Walks–managed by the Partnership–are a great opportunity to see what’s going on in downtown Chapel Hill and Carrboro. As Meg noted, you can never see everything there is to see, but it’s always fun to try.

The Partnership has hired a new full-time employee, Elinor Landess, who introduced herself to us: she is director of the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce the Negative Impacts of High Risk Drinking, an important collaboration funded by the Town, UNC, the Orange County Health Department, and the Orange County ABC Board.

In all, a lot of good news to celebrate and share at this morning’s meeting–held, delightfully, at DSI Comedy Theater. I invite you to visit downtown Chapel Hill often, and share your impressions at #MeetDowntown.

And mark your calendars for the Habitat house-raising in Northside on March 11, with congratulations to Thein Oo and Lweh Eh Paw and family.


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