Digging in their heels | Bob Burtman | Indy Week
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Digging in their heels 

The unveiling of Carolina North, the massive satellite UNC campus proposed for the Horace Williams Airport tract, has brought the long-simmering tensions between the town and the university back to full boil. According to the lofty predictions of university administrators, the 240-acre project will eventually bring as many as 18,000 employees to an 8.4 million-square-foot mix of research, office, retail and residential space. The preliminary plans have garnered predictably mixed reviews: Residents express fear that the sheer size and scope of the development will drastically alter the character of the town and trash years of careful planning, while promoters tout the potential benefits as dramatic and sweeping.

Though the concept remains nebulous and its prospects for success unclear, the importance of Carolina North to the university has quickly become set in stone. And all indications point to the fact that school administrators are prepared to play hardball to get what they want.

If the UNC Board of Trustees, Chancellor Moeser or anyone else thought that town approval of Carolina North would be a slam dunk, those notions were dispelled in November. Voters elected a slate of candidates to the Chapel Hill Town Council who indicated an unwillingness to sacrifice the town's interests at the university altar, conversely rejecting others closely identified with UNC, including an employee and a student. The sour aftertaste of the fight over a chiller plant and parking deck the university wanted on its main campus--which council members approved last year under pressure-- seems likely to linger as the council deliberates the many decisions they'll face on Carolina North in coming months.

Whatever emergency meetings and planning sessions school officials held in the election's wake were off-limits to prying eyes, but the results have been visibly rippling through town on a daily basis. A campaign to sell the project has yielded a series of public meetings combining the usual slick PowerPoint presentations with a chance for residents to float their suggestions and concerns. At every stop (with more to come), university representatives have issued assurances that the plan is just a draft, subject to change after public input is collected and considered.

These informal gatherings, which will eventually be supplemented by the public hearings required by law, have bought UNC a limited measure of goodwill. On the other hand, anyone who has ever attended a public hearing conducted by a state permitting agency knows that such choreographed proceedings often prove to be little more than formalities that grease the wheels of approval. And in the case of Carolina North, they constitute only a part of a more comprehensive and subtle selling strategy, one that suggests the professional assistance of hired PR guns.

Most noteworthy was the recent revelation that key UNC administration officials have been "paired" with Chapel Hill Town Council members, with whom they set up meetings to discuss selected topics. Though vice-chancellor Nancy Suttenfield characterized the meetings as a benign way to get better input from the town on issues of mutual interest, at least one council member sees it differently: "They have a specific lobbying strategy for softening up the council on Carolina North."

Other indications of a no-stones-unturned strategy have emerged. At the Orange County Ecomonic Development Summit held on Jan. 7, various speakers (including UNC business school higher-ups) pushed Carolina North as crucial to the county's economic future, while simultaneously criticizing the area's alleged hostility to business and the cumbersome regulatory process. Another problem identified at the summit: Too much power is invested in such bodies as the Chapel Hill Town Council.

The university has also been working local editorial boards, according to media sources. On Dec. 28, The Chapel Hill News published an editorial that noted several major concerns about Carolina North, including the absurd number of parking spaces in the draft plan (19,125), the lack of a guarantee to preserve or protect the remainder of the Horace Williams land, the cost of providing services, and traffic. The editorial went a step further, questioning the need for the mega-project in the first place. "UNC deserves credit for taking this early discussion to the public about the what of Carolina North," the editorial stated. "Now it needs to explain the why."

That explanation was apparently quick in coming. On Jan. 11, following the county economic summit, the paper offered a fresh outlook titled "Tantalizing peek at future." "We think [Carolina North] is absolutely the key to the bright economic future held out at last week's conference," the editorial gushed. "We hope elected officials of both towns will regard Carolina North in that light and devise a development regulatory structure that best enables UNC to ensure that outcome."

Chapel Hill News editor Ted Vaden says the paper's position is consistent in both opinions, though, he says, "I suppose I can see how you might think that it changed." He also says that although Vice-Chancellor Tony Waldrop did call once to complain about the paper's coverage, it was the summit's upbeat message on Carolina North that tipped the editorial balance.

To date, the public buzz about Carolina North coming from campus has been relatively low-key and uniformly positive. But it doesn't take much to guess that the university isn't especially keen on the prospect of having its ambitions thwarted by the Chapel Hill Town Council. University officials would be hesitant to take pot shots at council members, but one clue as to their true sentiments comes from last semester's American Studies 94 class, "The role of the university in American life." The weekly class recitation section that dealt with town-gown relations was taught by former Chapel Hill Mayor Jonathan Howes and attracted some of the school's most politically active students. According to one participant, Howes criticized certain council candidates during the election campaign as anti-university. The day after the election, the student recalls, Howes lamented that the new council was more hostile to UNC than any he could remember.

Howes, whose main gig is "special assistant to the chancellor for local relations," declined to comment beyond describing the position of certain council members as "one of vigilance." "What goes on in class is something that neither the students nor I normally talk about outside of class," Howes says.

The student also related comments by State Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, a UNC alumnus and one of several guest lecturers during the semester. Rand, who tried to slip a provision into a 2001 legislative budget bill that would have stripped Chapel Hill of its zoning authority over the Horace Williams tract, indicated that he'd try the same ploy again if needed. The needs of the university and importance of Carolina North, Rand said, outweighed any problems local authorities might have with the project.

Sentiments such as Rand's have led some council members to expect a full frontal assault dressed in light blue if they don't agree to approve plans for the project. For a preview, Town Council members may want to audit the freshman seminar Howes is teaching this semester--"Working together to build a community: UNC and the town of Chapel Hill experience."

Rather than building community, the university's approach to closing the deal on the project may be polarizing the council and spurring citizens to action. At its recent annual planning retreat, a majority voted to rescind an invitation to UNC extended by Mayor Kevin Foy to make its stock presentation at the council's Feb. 25 meeting. A citizen group's proposal to require UNC administrators to register as lobbyists drew opposing reactions from council members along what could be a preliminary indication of voting lines. The council also decided that until a public hearing is held to gain input on the principles the town should apply to its decisions, town staff will not meet with university planners to discuss specifics of the project.

Perhaps conflict over the project was inevitable. The way some supporters frame it, Carolina North has already become a thing of destiny whose momentum can't be reversed. Like the old textile mill bosses, the university and its web of alumni and employees have always considered Chapel Hill to be a kind of benevolent company town whose primary function should be to further the interests of the institution. That may have been the consensus last century, but the current residents have a very different perspective, one they've been expressing consistently at the ballot box. The incompatibility of their respective positions combusts every time they come in contact.

In the end, UNC's various machinations merely reflect what any savvy operator would do to generate a favorable result when the nuts-and-bolts negotiations begin and the votes come to the table. In a world where universities increasingly act like cutthroat commercial entities with a bottom-line view, it should be no surprise that UNC would approach Carolina North as a high-stakes battle that must be won--while carefully maintaining a politically palatable public stance of compromise and conciliation, of course. EndBlock

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