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Community discussion focuses on the future

Panelists engage in dialog about the state of Alamance County in 15 years in “Community Connections” forum.

Ryan Kirk, assistant professor of geography and environmental studies, Mebane City Manager David Cheek, Amy Nelson, director of planning and economic development in Burlington, and April Durr ’01, director of community impact with the United Way of Alamance County, and moderator, Jason Husser, assistant professor of political science and policy studies and assistant director of the Elon Poll, all participated in the "Community Connections" forum Wednesday, Feb. 4.

What will Alamance County look like in 15 years? What will attract people back to downtowns and lure more businesses to the area? Can public transportation make a difference? Is it possible to plan ahead when technology and jobs are always in flux?

Several questions were asked as part of a lively discussion Wednesday evening in McKinnon Hall during a forum that focused on “Alamance 2030: What Will Our Community Be Like in 15 Years?”

The event was the second of three “Community Connections” programs planned for the 2014-15 academic year in a partnership between Elon University and the Times-News of Burlington, N.C. Jason Husser, assistant professor of political science and policy studies and assistant director of the Elon Poll, was the moderator of the forum, which aims to create thoughtful dialog about issues deemed important in the community.

Ryan Kirk, assistant professor of geography and environmental studies, set the stage for the discussion with a series of slides outlining demographic and development trends in the next 15 years, including an estimate on the number of people who will migrate into the area as well as how many will commute out for work.

The panel of experts, which included Kirk, Mebane City Manager David Cheek, Amy Nelson, director of planning and economic development in Burlington, and April Durr ’01, director of community impact with the United Way of Alamance County, all agreed that the key to building a successful community was actually creating a place where people want to live.

“Millenials are looking for those communities that are walkable, that have transit, that have things that are within the central downtown where you can live, work and do recreational activities all in the same space,” Durr said.

Ryan Kirk, assistant professor of geography and environmental studies, presented several slides outlining demographic and development trends in the next 15 years.

Cheek gave downtown Durham as an example of a place that is attracting younger people. “I think you have to create these communities where these people want to live,” he added.

People attract businesses and new businesses attract people. “You work on your parks, your sidewalks and your programming, and you try to make it as wonderful a place as you possibly can and that attracts the people and then hopefully the jobs will follow,” Nelson said.

She is already seeing a change in downtown Burlington that still has many empty buildings. More businesses are locating there and regular events are planned to bring people back to the area.

“The key in turning any downtown around is getting people to live downtown,” Nelson said. “That brings in more restaurants and more retail and then more people come to visit.”

Mebane continues to try and attract higher paying jobs to the area but is always competing with neighboring counties. Mebane was recently the second choice of two pharmaceutical companies that opted to locate in Durham and the Research Triangle area instead. Why?

“I will tell you that our incentive package was much better than Orange and Durham counties, but we lost,” Cheek said. A lack of funding for the Alamance-Burlington School System was cited as one of the reasons. “I’m not saying that was only factor, but it was a factor because they mentioned it.”

A lack of public transportation was another point raised. Durr said she considered it the No. 1 issue holding back the community.

“Thinking ahead, if we don’t look at basic infrastructure like public transportation, we are really holding back our community from moving forward in more ways than one,” Durr said. “It might be from an education standpoint, a job standpoint, an environmental standpoint or a health standpoint.”

Cheek urged the group to support local government.

“Instead of looking at everything as an expense, look at it as an investment,” he said. “I can prove to every one of you that it will pay dividends forever.”

Roselee Papandrea Taylor,
Staff
2/5/2015 4:55 PM