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Chapel Hill Pays Musicians to Save Downtown

The Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership and the town mayor’s office are starting a 6-week program to save downtown Chapel Hill businesses. Named “ Franklin Street Comes Alive ”, the program pays local musicians and performers $50 to perform in designated areas from 7pm and 10pm. (Peter Frampton will not be making an appearance)

Interesting. So not even a primo location (a short walk from 25,000 of North Carolina’s wealthiest 20 year olds) and millions spent on free buses can save downtown businesses from competition in the suburbs. Now we are paying musicians to perform free shows to beg people to shop downtown…in one of the most transit-friendly populations in the United States? Looks like an ideal time for the Triangle to spend over a billion dollars on a rail transit system (that will serve half of a percent of the Triangle’s core population).

  • John

    Wow, Dana, I don’t know where to begin with my comments. I have so many.
    First of all, I have a problem with the elitest statement regarding “25,000 of North Carolina’s wealthiest 20 year olds”. While I am no big fan of UNC or the city of Chapel Hill, a statement like that only goes to further a stereotype about Chapel Hill that certainly doesn’t represent everyone.
    Secondly, I think that the demise of the collegiately supported university retail strip can be attributed to a couple of factors: 1.) Local housing expenses that are displacing students with more wealthy “urban” professionals….and 2.)The continuing fallout from the state raising the drinking age for beer and wine from 18 to 21 a few decades ago.
    More students are living further and further from campuses these days and they are going to the places where the rent is cheaper. I’d suspect that many students at UNC are living in Durham. And, given that they are living in Durham, they are probably shopping at Southpoint with everyone else.
    So, it sounds like Franklin St. is following the path of Hillsborough St. in Raleigh. Students move to other areas, yuppies move in, college bars close or struggle and the city is left to figure out how to fix it all.
    Every non-student that moves into a university community makes it more difficult for that community to remain a student focused environment. Professionals beget more professionals and that drives change in the eco-system of the neighborhood. When living “in town” wasn’t de rigueur like it is today, the more urban neighborhoods near universtities were often times more affordable than the burbs. Now, it’s the opposite. As a result, student life will follow where it’s cheapest.
    If either Chapel Hill or Raleigh wants to bring its retail back near their respective campuses, they are going to have to find a way to bring more students back to the community. This means that they need to pursue affordable housing for them. Then, they are going to have figure out what the students’ market is so that they will shop in the local stores.
    Regarding transit plans, establishing transit hubs increases local population over time and increases activity in those neighborhoods. It actually grows walkable/urban areas. It doesn’t drain them of their vitality. To that end, transit will be good for DT Chapel Hill.

  • Dana

    There was a study about 8 years ago that revealed an extraordinary difference in income level between parents of UNC students and those of the state’s average families.

    If the areas around downtown Chapel Hill are more populated by mature adults than they were 30 years ago, it only proves my point further. These are transit-oriented adults who STILL prefer to shop in strip shopping centers and malls. If we want a true urban experience in a place like Raleigh, we won’t get there with retail and entertainment that simply caters to 21 year olds. It is apparent that this kind of retail is not making the dream happen in Chapel Hill either.

    Chapel Hill HAS transit; one of the best-serving (for its community), cleanest, and most convenient in the country. If Chapel Hill can’t make transit and the urban retail work (that we keep hearing downtownists long-for so vocally), with a major amount of government underwriting, then why in the world does anyone think that it will fly in other cities in the south?

    I’m all for organic urban development, maybe even with a little government support. I am not, however, for gigantic government subsidies that force money pit concepts that continue to prove their own unsustainability.

  • donna

    Even when I lived out of walking distance from downtown I still used to go there quite often. But that was back in the days that it had two record stores, a gaming store, and a couple of used bookshops all between the post office and Columbia. Now there’s very little in that area to tempt me.

    I worked at several former Franklin St. businesses, and their main difficulty seemed to be the high rent. There were days that we’d have as many customers as we could handle, but it was still difficult to make ends meet.

  • Angered Student

    “25,000 of North Carolina’s wealthiest 20 year olds” You have got to be kidding me! I don’t care if some of the student’s parents have above average incomes. There are still thousands who don’t. I am one of them and I work 2 jobs during the school year and 3 during the summer. Many people choose to go to UNC because it is the best public school they can afford. And do not forget that Duke (or any state private school) is going to have a larger percentage of wealthy parents who can send their kids to that school. But even in this case there is no need for over generalizations.
    And I won’t even get started on your statement about public transportation. But your comment “Chapel Hill HAS transit; one of the… most convenient in the country.” Convenience is subjective.

    • https://www.danamccall.com Dana

      Why not get you started about my public transportation statement? That was the point of the post! :) Yes, convenience is subjective, and that is the primary argument against rail transit, the most inconvenient of all public transit options. Chapel Hill’s bus service is outstanding in delivering service to a short walk from nearly every area of the town. If you are complaining about service times and headways, do you think that the proposed rail plan will do a better job?

      (See my earlier statement about the wealth of UNC families compared to the rest of the state. At least one study proved this well)

      Here’s another point to ponder: Every single UNC student and every adult in Chapel Hill wears clothes, sleeps on sheets, buys items like cookwear, nails, lamps, office supplies, etc. Where are they choosing to buy these items? Downtown Chapel Hill is an excellent transit node, and citizens have a free ride to nearly every door on the strip. Why can’t typical retail outlets that stock everyday items make it there? Furthermore, why doesn’t a full-service grocery store exist in this transit-friendly zone? Every private office building and shopping center in Chapel Hill has massive amounts of parking, just like in Raleigh. Why is that, especially when there is a bus frequently accessing these properties?

  • Kevin

    Why do you assume that the only point of rail transit is to transport people to shop downtown? Does commuting to work, attending the arts, and watching sports not count? To use downtown CH as an microcosm of the entire Triangle seems a bit off, as each city has its own draw for people. You also overlook the fact that rail not only links city centers to one another, but suburban points to one another.

    Also, I would hardly consider CH to be “one of the most transit-friendly populations in the United States.” New York, Chicago, Portland, Boston, San Fran, perhaps… but not CH.

    • https://www.danamccall.com Dana

      The model is a good one, Kevin, because one of the selling points for rail is the string of pearls that is supposed to ensue. Each stop is supposed to have a 0.5mi radius “village” which contains walkable developments with retail, office, and housing. Downtown Chapel Hill is a low-rise example of what these developments aim to offer. The big problem is that people continuously show their choice when they get in their car.

      The reason I emphasize retail so much is because downtown revitalization enthusiasts and rail enthusiasts harp on the lack of retail in Raleigh’s core downtown. Many argue that with rail transit, downtown will become a shopping mecca. If that happens, it won’t be because of a billion dollar rail system.

      Which sporting events will be accessible from the rail plan? I see the Durham Bulls being on the line, but no others (rigid rail would not adequately service Carter-Finley’s 6 annual events nor does it service the RBC Center’s 75-100 annual events.

      I’m not saying that the cities you mention are not transit-friendly, but I ask if any of them have voted to offer free public transit to all citizens? It doesn’t get any more transit friendly than that (yes, a bus system is “transit”).

  • Ken Metzger

    It just seems that conclusions are being jumped to here:
    Chapel Hill is paying musicians, therefore the downtown (don’t they call it uptown?) area is struggling? Isn’t it summer and the town is dead every year?

    I am not sure where transit gets into the discussion? I thought it was always known that rent is just too high on Franklin St. for regular businesses to survive. This has been the case since the mid-nineties. (Taco-Bell, Schoolkids, and Miami Subs were always busy, but the margin too thin) There is a lot of turnover, because people love the town and want their shop to be there, but most just don’t make business sense. Why is the rent still so high when businesses fail? Because people keep trying.

    The town made buses free to help downtown? I thought this was because they are very liberal and have a decent amount of money for the needs of the town. I also thought it was to help students get around, when parking has been sparse downtown. The Chapel Hill system mainly supports the university and its operations. (I was actually paid to ride the bus and count passengers) The main express buses go to parking lots, the hospital and campus. It also includes the U and RU (campus circulars). The system is more like the Wolfline with expanded service.

    Will a rail help downtowns? Probably not, but the goal is to build something before it is needed, because it takes like 30 years to complete. It can help create pockets (pearls) of small development, but downtowns are usually bigger than the help that rail can provide. I am on the fence on rail, but this city does need a major upgrade on its system, which would mean buses.

  • Owen

    I think your spin is a bit out of control on this one Dana.

    Franklin Street is not failing. This seems more like an effort to give people something fun to do, than the desperate last-ditch effort to save the “failing” downtown Chapel Hill that you portray.

    At a cost of $50 per performer, how much will this cost the town over the course of 6 weeks anyway? $2000? $3000? Sheesh. The town spends $3000 basically on recreation and all of a sudden TRANSIT IS DOOMED TO FAILURE EVERYWHERE!!

  • https://www.danamccall.com Dana

    Orulz, if you need any evidence of Franklin Street’s troubles, then probably ought to look at the situation more closely. Clothing stores have trouble staying open, key spaces have been vacant for years, two long-time movie theaters have failed, national chains have failed, local clothing and music stores have not made it. To have turnover in a retail area is one thing, but Franklin Street has a much higher failure rate, ESPECIALLY when looking at the blocks least accessible by cars, than area malls have. The town’s word on this is that they want to “create a vibrant and lively atmosphere in the heart of our town.” Why is this needed as a concerted project if the area is doing just fine? When I was in Chapel Hill for 9 years there was plenty of vibrant and lively atmosphere. Now when we go there it feels dead.

    BTW, this is a “pilot program”, which means the intention is for this to succeed and become a more permanent addition.

    The point about transit was apparently lost. I’m saying that EVEN IN THE FACE of FREE transit, downtown Chapel Hill needs government programs to keep people interested in shopping there. Meanwhile over in Eastgate, Southpoint, and at Whole Foods’ strip, parking is a problem because people are CHOOSING to shop there (areas with no forced govt help). People think that rail transit is vital to good urban growth here, but we see a perfect example of how it will have absolutely no effect on providing an experience that the public is interested in consuming. You’ll find those people milling about at Southpoint (any guesses where the idea of the program is seeded?)

  • https://www.raleighmsa.com Ernest

    At the risk of being completely misunderstood, I would like to say up front that I am 100% for a light rail system, as long as it connects the Triangle’s most important centers and isn’t a big burden on taxpayers. Please, keep in mind that my brain is a little fried after staring at the computer screen all day and my thoughts may not be very clear – yes, I actually do some work during the day :LOL:

    The reason I started with the light rail – you may substitute “light” with “regional” – is because Dana is right on the money when he mentions public transit. Chapel Hill has a decent transportation system in place, and yet very little boost seems to come from it. During the era when Franklin Street was bustling with activity, Raleigh and Durham were improving their own entertainment centers at a fast rate. I remember people from Raleigh going to Chapel Hill frequently, either to visit friends, or just to be entertained. With DT Raleigh and DT Durham becoming stronger, Chapel Hill appeared to do little and consequently it might have lost some of its crowd, whether it is entertainment they are seeking, or shopping. Communities like Southern Village and Meadowmont Village might have taken some of the activity from the center, too.

    I suspect, and this ONLY an opinion, that a good light rail system that connects Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill could eventually help the latter in the future, but I see additional residential projects bringing some of the old glory back to Franklin Street faster. If CH NIMBYs want to prevent anything above 6 floors to find its way to DT Chapel Hill, not much can be achieved. Developers will eventually get sick and tired and finally shift their interest to more suburban areas.

    Maybe Chapel Hill can do something along the same lines with Durham. There may not be old warehouses to be renovated, but there are a few sites that could host new developments. The town should try hard to attract some companies that require creative employees. The workforce is there.

  • John

    The conundrum for college town “strips” is in choosing their audience. If in fact students are living further way from it (which I think they are) and a wealthier post-college crowd is increasing its presence (which I think is happening), then the real question is “what’s appropriate for the area?” This used to be an easy question when students dominated these types of environments. Now, it’s much more difficult to answer. So, who’s going to make the investment in an environment that sends a mixed message? Will low cost restaurants stand a chance when most students don’t live nearby? Will high end establishments take the risk on a college strip in hopes of a more seasoned shopper/diner? Frankly, I don’t know the answer. I just know that the demographic balance that used to make these questions easy to answer has changed.
    Regarding transit…let’s face it,the automobile culture has been killing the likes of smaller cities and towns and it has certainly taken its toll on college town “strips”. Add the need for students to get to lower cost housing that’s not on the free bus line and it’s easy to see how they have become integral to college life. I’d love to see a graph of the percentage of students who own cars today vs. decades past. My guess is that the rate of ownership has increased steadily. But, that’s just a hunch.
    If we do not invest in regional transit now, we are only dooming ourselves to more of this car related mess in the future. This is true for the entire region. Also, Chapel Hill is going to have to continue to provide more density in their nearby housing/retail options or the city risks becoming obsolete in the eye of the consumer. It’s one thing to be exclusive, it’s completely another thing to paint yourself into a corner. The same holds true for the other cities in the Triangle. Raleigh is heading in the right direction, IMO. The public and private investment in DT has started to bloom. Surely, it’s not in full bloom but it’s heading in the right direction. I think it’s nearing a tipping point where demand will create oppty that retailers won’t be able to resist. Until then, I am not going to support anyone who wants to pull the plug out of impatience. Because, frankly, we either embrace and foster our urban areas or we become a sprawled out mess like Houston.

  • Brian


    I would like to take issue with a few of your assertions.

    First, I hardly see the connection between the town of chapel hill instituting a program that will cost $600/month (assuming they’re going to pay musicians 3 night per week) signals that the death of franklin street is imminent. It seems like a simple way to provide a small amount of entertainment while school is out.

    Second, I don’t think it is fair to refer to franklin street as anything but devoid of retail. I would venture a guess that there are maybe 10 retail stores on the three blocks of franklin. Therefore it is extremely unfair to come to conclusions about retail based on downtown chapel hill. It is in no way representative of what rail stations aim to provide. The main draw of the area has always been dining and bars. Both of which are doing very well and benefiting amazingly from public transit.

    Thirdly, the largest reason for the implementation of the bus system in chapel hill is the planned eradication of parking on campus. As of now it is nearly impossible park anywhere on campus. Without the buses, a huge portion of students, staff, and faculty would have no way of getting where they need to go.

    Fourth, I heard a lot of the same arguments against rail used a few years ago in charlotte when the battle of light rail there was going on. Yet once the line started up, ridership shattered every expectation that anyone had made, and development around stops exploded. Add to that a study released last week, discovered that the vast majority of people who use the train are new to transit, meaning that those were cars taken directly off the road.

    Source – https://www.charlotteobserver.com/local/story/847693.html

    I also take issue with the statement “people consistently vote by getting in their car’s”. What other choice do they have? We live in a country that has done nothing for transportation but build roads for the last 40 years while putting trains on the backburner. Yet we wonder why no-one rides the trains that we underfund.

  • https://www.danamccall.com Dana

    1) I never said the death of the street in imminent. However it is not even remotely arguable that Franklin Street as a business district is having troubles.

    2) There are too many double-negatives to understand your point, however you state: “The main draw of the area has always been dining and bars.” This is not true AT ALL. Remember Whims? Julians? Town & Country? Miltons? Logos? Hardback? TWO movie theaters? High end dining? Rite Aid? Intimate Book Shop? Schoolkids and Record Bar? That was only 20 years ago. Then there was The Gap, which also failed. There was plenty of non-food and bar traffic on the street.

    3) The bus system has been in place in its current state for over two decades. Yes, parking scarcity drives the need for a bus system, however it does not drive the need for a FREE bus system. When the town completely subsidized all bus transit, it was making a clear statement that their investment was meant to serve the citizens of Chapel Hill for their transportation needs, not just those of people employed by or studying at UNC.

    4) Yes, Charlotte ridership has exceeded projections. It actually is still not serving half of a percent of the metro area’s population, though, and cost $522 million to build (30% over budget). While there is new development near the line’s stops, it is probably likely that these developments are with funds that would have been used elsewhere in the city.

    5) “I also take issue with the statement ‘people consistently vote by getting in their car’s’. What other choice do they have?”

    In Chapel Hill, they have the option of riding a _free, clean bus_. They _choose not to_, however. That is the entire crux of the post.

  • Brian

    “In Chapel Hill, they have the option of riding a _free, clean bus_. They _choose not to_, however. That is the entire crux of the post.”

    But they do use the buses. I do every morning and evening, and the bus is packed. Often their are too many people at the stop for a single (double-length) bus. Why don’t the buses serve retail more? Because the buses mainly serve students and students the 16,000 undergrads can’t support a full street of retail.

  • https://www.raleighmsa.com Ernest

    I think you all are correct – John, your last post was right on the money!!!

    Connecting all the dots is tough, even for larger and more diverse cities, like Raleigh. Transportation, alone, is not enough. I would gladly use public transit if it served me well, but giving up my car 50% of the time would be impossible; speaking strictly for myself.

    Chapel Hill should look more into the ever-changing demographics and accommodate more segments of the population. Affordability is good, but the town should look into its well-off population and stop pushing developers too hard on including “affordable” units. Let a few wealthier residents populate DT Chapel Hill and you will see how fast things will change. No way that area will be dominated by one segment of the population, but like every downtown area, it needs a higher tax base.

  • John

    Thanks for the kind words Ernest.
    I agree that the city should be focusing on letting in more segments of the population. But, I am not so sure that they should focus on the wealthy. Those people are coming anyway. I do think that that affordable housing should be a priority…with a catch. I think that they ought to be focusing on affordable housing for students! Now, this doesn’t mean that students should get reduced rental rates for exactly the same apartments in which others pay more. I think the city should find a way to work with students through more modest and affordable private dorms. If the city wants to use its muscle to do the right thing by people who can’t afford housing, it should do so for those “citizens” who are the very backbone of the reason the city exists in the first place. Students in dorm rooms “live” in their communities much in the same way that people in tiny apartments and studios in major cities “live” in their communities. That is to say that they get out of their homes and use their neighborhoods as a public living room. That behavior will create the sort of foot traffic that will ignite retail.

  • Dana

    That’s a really interesting idea. There are SO many NCSU students who live SW of campus in apartment complexes. Imagine if you did Dorm 2.0 in west downtown, with great bus service to campus. So many students are playing downtown. That is the next perfectly logical group to attract to downtown (the first being gay people, second being empty nesters). These people will want cars, but are not in the habit of using one 5 times a day, and are willing to walk 0.3 to 0.5 miles to go to a retail store.

  • https://www.raleighmsa.com Ernest


    By wealthy, I didn’t really mean rich/super-rich, but rather well off individuals who can spend money and move the local economy a little. The big money will mostly remain attracted to McMansions and established areas.

    Also, and I didn’t clarify that, the focus on attractive well-off residents is a first step to revitalizing a downtown, not the ultimate goal. There will be multiple steps and the focus on affordability will return to the top of the agenda. You are correct about the students, and I hope to see some focus on affordable student [medium-to-high density] housing, too. Same holds true for Raleigh, of course.

  • John

    I agree Dana. The same holds true for Raleigh. In fact, I think the prospects of such an idea are greater in Raleigh than they might be in Chapel Hill. The city should work with developers to encourage price friendly high density student housing outside the typical apartment assumptions. These should be focused on how students on a budget live. I can imagine some sort of fully furnished studios (about 400 square feet) the live like dorms but with a bit more space. They could be constructed with loft like bunks and study areas, have their own bathroom and even a small combo living area with a kitchnette. I think students would me mad about living in such an arrangement. The city could use incentives to get these sorts of properties built between NC State and DT on land that others might eschew as undesirable. Perhaps land on the back side of Morgan Street near the rail road tracks? (Charlie Goodnight area)

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