The board of directors of the new Chapel Hill Downtown Economic Development Corporation–a nonprofit set up by the Town Council to lead the effort to “revitalize” downtown–has shown itself to be among the more efficient public bodies in the Triangle. In one quick meeting last week, the group managed to alienate a number of the players needed to make new ideas work and raise suspicion among the general public about just what the group is up to.
It wasn’t intentional, they say. It never is.
But this group, financed entirely from taxpayer funds and on a very public mission, decided without much debate at all that it wasn’t up to discussing issues or looking at plans along with the rest of us and voted 6-1 to do its work in secret.
The move led to the resignation of the lone objector, chair Bob Epting, who as a former elected official and an attorney for a number of public bodies has a firm grasp of the words and spirit of the state’s open meeting laws.
For folks interested in the future of downtown Chapel Hill, the board’s action was enlightening, as was the rather imperial response by board member J. Allen Fine, when asked by Epting why he wanted to do things in closed session. “Why not?” Fine replied.
While it’s very, very un-Chapel Hill to suggest that anything unethical might be in the works, the fact that the corporation is populated by downtown property owners, university officials and a developer who has already said he might put a bid in on one of the town’s downtown projects, requires an open process.
Unless there’s a rapid change of heart, it doesn’t look like that will come from the development corporation’s board of directors. Which leaves it up to the Town Council to restore trust in the process.
Even before this latest incident, there were concerns raised that the new “vision” for downtown is based on the fantasy that Chapel Hill is something other than a college town and that Franklin Street can be turned into a quaint, funky, boutique-filled shopping mecca topped by half-million-dollar condos. The mantra is “too many bars and T-shirt shops,” as if the market (the lion’s share being the 30,000 young people who live within a mile of downtown) can be steered into spending more money on snazzy clothes and home furnishings.
Sorry gang, but that’s folly, and any frosh at Kenan-Flagler could tell you so. Downtown Chapel Hill is a great hangout. The invisible hand isn’t dialing Prada, it’s trying to signal the bartender that it wants another beer and maybe some wings. Slip into closed session and debate that.