In 1993, Carrboro stole the Cat’s Cradle away from Chapel Hill. It didn’t take much, just a little help from the mayor and a small business loan. It’s a bellwether moment in local music history, one that signaled the migration of the world famous “Chapel Hill music scene” out of Chapel Hill and the beginning of Carrboro’s commitment to one of the best rock clubs in the country.

Alex Zaffron, now a member of Carrboro’s board of aldermen, heard the Cradle would soon be losing its lease on Franklin Street. “At the time, Ellie Kinnaird was mayor and I said, ‘Hey, Ellie, guess what? Frank [Heath]’s going to be looking for a new place.’ Frankly, our downtown was pretty dead back then.” Kinnaird hooked up Heath, the club’s owner, with the owner of a space on East Main Street, and Heath applied for a revolving loan from the town to fix up the space. Today, Heath estimates the Cradle draws between 50,000 and 75,000 people a year—Carrboro’s population is less than 20,000. Restaurants and bars along Main Street have succeeded in part because of the Cradle’s presence.

Carrboro has put the Cradle and the ArtsCenter, which also hosts live music, at the center of its plans for downtown rejuvenation. Main Street Properties plans to turn the strip-mall complex into a set of buildings as high as five stories, with the Cradle and ArtsCenter in the southeast corner, separated by an outdoor amphitheater facing Weaver Street Market. The developer’s plans call for the buildings housing those venues to go up first, so that by the time the old spaces are torn down, the new venues will already be up and running. Zaffron’s been out front on the project, championing the controversial cause of raising the town’s height restrictions in order to increase commercial space.

Another musical refugee from Chapel Hill thinks the town is completely out of touch. Mac McCaughan of the rock group Superchunk says Merge Records, the label he and bandmate Laura Ballance founded while students at UNC, left Chapel Hill because they wanted to stop paying rent, and Durham had old buildings they could afford to buy. Merge’s new headquarters is near Durham’s City Hall. “No one tried to get us to stay in Chapel Hill, but we didn’t really march over to town hall expecting preferential treatment,” McCaughan says. Durham’s government hasn’t treated them any differently, he adds.

But McCaughan says Chapel Hill seems to be trying to lose its cool these days. “In general, the way the Town of Chapel Hill operates seems remarkably unimaginative. The 100 block of Franklin Street is depressing and almost completely lacking in anything to differentiate Chapel Hill from a hundred other down-in-the-mouth college towns around the country—having been on tour for the last 15 years, I’ve seen quite a few.”

The new executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership sounds like she looks at things differently. It’s important for downtowns to draw on their strengths, says Liz Parham, and to take advantage of what makes them unique.

“Here, it’s culture, it’s entertainment,” she says. The organization puts out a biweekly e-mail calendar of events that includes rock shows. “We have a lot of live music venues that we really want to play up,” says Parham. “We want to work more with those business owners in promoting what they have going on.”

Chapel Hill’s rock clubs would welcome the help. Glen Boothe moved back to Chapel Hill from Los Angeles two years ago and took over the Local 506, a West Franklin Street institution. At the end of his first year in business, Boothe wasn’t sure he would make it. A last-minute bank loan allowed him to make rent and pay the many annual fees (liquor licenses, permits, insurance) that all came due at once. Since then, he’s made some tough decisions about booking, reducing the number of shows Sunday through Wednesday nights. “With another year under my belt, I’ve been able to take a closer look at the books and make the club more profitable,” Boothe says. “But of course we’re still paying off the debts we incurred in the first year and a half.”

Boothe would love for the town to reach out to live music venues and offer more help, especially in the form of promotion. “People think it’s cool that we have these rock clubs,” Boothe says, “but no one knows what to do to support them.”

Keeping the Beat…