Orange County

In Carrboro, gentrification fears bubble up at candidates forum

Carrboro runs the risk of falling victim to its own success, incumbent Alderwoman Jacquie Gist said at a candidates forum.

Efforts to build a progressive community with a thriving downtown, strong local schools, and a vibrant arts scene have largely succeeded, she said, but the influx of people eager to reap those rewards risks pricing out long-time residents and business owners alike.

“I sometimes feel I will spend my life helping to create a community I will not be able to afford to retire in – and I’m not kidding,” said Gist, who has served on the Board of Aldermen for 28 years. “We are in danger of becoming gentrified.”

Five candidates are running for four open seats on the Board of Aldermen, while challenger Mike Benson and incumbent Lydia Lavelle vie for mayor in the town of roughly 21,000 people.

Maintaining affordability for both residents and business owners was a recurring theme at Monday’s forum hosted by the local League of Women Voters along with the UNC Graduate and Professional Student Federation and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools PTA Council.

Incumbent Randee Haven-O’Donnell agreed with Gist.

“Affordability is the most-pressing issue Carrboro faces, and it touches everything,” she said.

Haven-O’Donnell touted recent efforts by the town to encourage the development of tiny homes, while Gist said she’d like to see “granny flats” added to the town code for homeowners to build and rent out.

Paul Clark is a resident of northern Carrboro running for office for the first time. He said residents feeling the pinch from rising housing costs need affordable goods and services such as groceries and child-care options, and they need to be able to find them where they live.

“We have to make those resources available across the town, not just downtown in the little bubble that seems to be growing,” said Clark.

Within the heart of Carrboro, small business owners are under pressure too, said mayoral challenger Mike Benson.

Revolving loan fund

Benson, who ran the former Southern Rail restaurant and bar in downtown Carrboro for nine years, supports a modest grant program to help local business owners weather the off-season months in winter or summer when foot traffic is low.

He characterized the town’s revolving loan fund as “a disaster,” saying the program takes too long to apply for and offers no advantages over bank financing.

Incumbent Mayor Lydia Lavelle defended the loan fund, pointing to a high repayment rate and many recipients’ ongoing success. She also touted the town’s efforts to bring affordable commercial development to northern Carrboro. One town-owned parcel along Old N.C. 86 is under consideration for development as a space that could offer low-cost studios for rent to local craftspeople.

At the nexus of population growth, commercial development, and sustainability is the question of where to park in downtown Carrboro.

Benson and Gist said they fear local business owners suffer from a patchwork of public lots and a lack of access to privately owned parking.

Clark, the parent of three small children, said convenience and nearby parking help decide whether his family shops or eats downtown.

The town’s recently completed parking study indicated there’s no immediate need to build new parking structures. Instead it suggested Carrboro should look for ways to maximize a combination of town-owned and privately owned lots to meet demand.

Alderwoman candidate Barbara Foushee said she’d like to see the parking plan fully implemented, including new signs in the short-term and cooperative agreements with private lot owners in the long term.

Incumbent Sammy Slade said the biggest parking problem in Carrboro is one of perception. He questioned the value of investing in new structured parking.

“The parking study showed there’s actually a surplus of parking,” he said. “Currently the way it works is, it’s a fiefdom, and if you park in one business owner [lot] and don’t move into the next lot, you may get towed. There needs to be more collaboration by private owners in our downtown. Parking decks are extremely expensive, so if we have other alternatives we want to do those first.”

The deadline to register to vote by mail is Friday, Oct. 13. The early voting period runs Oct. 19 through Nov. 4. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.

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Who’s running

For mayor: Lydia Lavelle (incumbent), Mike Benson

For aldermen (4 open seats): Paul Clark, Barbara Foushee, and incumbents Jacquelyn Gist, Randee Haven-O’Donnell and Sammy Slade. The fourth-highest vote getter will serve the remaining two years on Michelle Johnson’s term. Johnson resigned from the board when she moved out of Carrboro.

The deadline to register to vote by mail is Friday, Oct. 13. The early voting period runs Oct. 19 through Nov. 4. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.

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