Incubator Approved in Chapel Hill

CHTC Approves Incentive Package and Incubator Plan

Elizabeth Friend Reporting

CHAPEL HILL- Citizens and council members say a new public/private partnership marks a sea change in the way the Chapel Hill encourages economic development.

Nearly everyone in Town Hall had warm words on Wednesday for a plan to bring start-up businesses downtown and encourage a growing business to stay in Chapel Hill.

“It’s a unique and powerful partnership between these entities: the town, the university, the county, the Downtown Partnership and our business community,” said Meg McGurk, executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership. “It shows the entire Triangle region that we’re working together to help foster a healthy business environment in our downtown. The retention and growth of a profitable business like 3 Birds means more employees and their families that will live, work, and play on our community.”

3 Birds Marketing is slated to outgrow office space on Rosemary Street, but in an effort to keep the business downtown, Chapel Hill leaders approved a plan to offer employees subsidized parking on Graham Street as an incentive to move to West Franklin Street. In return, the marketing firm promises to hire local talent to fill new positions, or reimburse the town if the company’s growth projections don’t pan out. The company plans to expand from thirty to eighty employees in the next two years.

Town leaders praised the marketing firm for its commitment to Chapel Hill, but it was a corollary plan to develop the former 3 Birds location into a small business incubator that captured the crowd’s imagination.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt told the council what it was like to walk into a UNC-affiliated incubator (Jim’s!) downtown.

“It was an amazing experience to walk in and see what these young people were doing to create the world they wanted,” said Kleinschmidt. “And it was just incredible seeing it happening right there, on Franklin Street.”

Half a dozen young entrepreneurs said access to that program has changed their lives. But Morris Gelblum said he needs help to keep his small business in Chapel Hill.

“I have strong roots here. I want to retain a presence here. And it’s going to take something like the innovation center to do so,” said Gelblum. “We need somewhere with internet and parking and mentorship and collaboration and a lot of coffee to get us there. Durham and Raleigh have a lot of those places, but there are a lot of smart students in Chapel Hill.”

The three and a half year incubator project will cost roughly $100,000, to be split by Chapel Hill and Orange County. The county’s $40,000 contribution will come from the new quarter cent sales tax voters approved to fund economic development initiatives. 3 Birds will chip in $10,000, and donate services and expertise to the program.

The incentive package and incubator plan is the first of its kind for the town, which gave some on the council reason to pause. But Laurin Easthom said it’s an important step to putting action behind the town’s commitment to economic development.

“Let the record show the Town of Chapel Hill is in the business of helping to create jobs. This is an example,” said Easthom.

The council unanimously approved the proposal. The town manager and attorney will negotiate with the partners to finalize the plan.

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