Chatham leaders discuss growth, future at development panel

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PITTSBORO — Panelists at a “Corridors of Opportunity” gathering last Thursday emphasized balancing rapid potential growth with a need for adequate affordable housing, saying Chatham County needed to preserve the natural amenities that make it an appealing community.

The Triangle Business Journal hosted the discussion at the Chatham Agriculture & Conference Center featuring four panelists — three local and one from the state level — addressing a variety of questions related to carmaker VinFast’s impending arrival, population growth from Chatham Park and the future of economic development in the county.

The panelists were Karen Howard, the chairperson of the county’s board of commissioners; Michael Smith, president of Chatham Economic Development Corporation; Bubba Rawl, co-owner of Chatham Park developer Preston Development Company; and Michael Cline, a state demographer for the state of North Carolina.

“We are responsible for setting local policy that can guide development in a way that works for business but also protects the assets of Chatham County that brought us here,” Howard said in opening remarks. “As these jobs and opportunities come to Chatham, those opportunities are available to the people that live here already and make a difference in their lives.”

One of the people in working on fulfilling that vision is Rawl, who with development partner Tim Smith has developed Chatham Park. The 7,000+ acre development project could bring more than 60,000 residents with 22,000 units when fully built. He said Chatham County was a perfect choice for the development because of its natural rural amenities.

“We came to Chatham because of the beauty and the landscape,” Rawl said. “What really attracted us to Pittsboro region was the downtown and the culture. There’s no way to replicate the history here and it allows us to really have an amenity to make Chatham Park a special place.”

Developments like Chatham Park, according to Cline, are one reason why Chatham County avoided the statewide trend of a declining population over the past decade.

“Counties adjacent to major metropolitan urban centers see growth,” Cline said. He said Chatham’s positioning next to the Research Triangle sets it up to be a place of refuge from the hustle and bustle of a metro area, while also booming in its own right.

Aside from the geography, Cline said the biggest reason he expects the growth to continue beyond this decade is economic development possibilities accompanying projects like carmaker VinFast at Triangle Innovation Point and the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) site.

“We’re excited to change lives and we’re using a detailed approach to do it,” the EDC’s Smith said. “When you think about the economic opportunities we have available here it’s amazing. Now the hard part begins.”

He said one major benefits of attracting a large company like VinFast is the job growth — both directly at the plant, expected to employ 7,500 people, and indirectly through suppliers and other employment. While he didn’t have an exact figure for how many indirect jobs VinFast would create, Smith said he anticipates it will be “dramatic.”

Rawl said he believes Chatham Park and neighboring developments will have some role to play in providing space and homes for the influx of people Chatham will see. While VinFast isn’t accelerating the process of building homes due to supply chain issues, Rawl did say transportation planning has been moved up.

“What we are accelerating is transportation plans to build the Chatham Parkway with a northern station right past the dam over U.S. Hwy. 15-501 to the south section which is a seven and a half mile road,” Rawl said. “We hope to provide a four-lane road in the next five years.”

All this development and economic development, however, comes with negative externalities. For starters, there’s ongoing discussion about the challenges of finding affordable housing in the area. Rawl said Chatham Park was one of the first times in his career he’s grappled with that question. Chatham Park has agreed to make 7.5% of homes in Chatham Park qualify as “affordable” housing — roughly 1,600 units in the development. Rawl said 40 of those units will be delivered inside Mosaic within the next 12 months.

Chatham Park agreed housing is considered affordable is when a homeowner is contributing 30% or less of their income toward the home. For example, if someone earned $30,000 annually, then $9,000 of that would go toward the mortgage or rent payment. Rawl said Chatham Park has also stipulated affordable units must remain classified as affordable for at least 30 years.

The Area Median Income, or AMI of Chatham County, is $86,400 for a family of four — meaning that same family of four would be expected to contribute $27,250 per year toward their home, according to the Chatham County Housing Trust Fund.

CCHTF, however, differs from Rawl’s definition of affordable. The organization says affordable housing is defined as being affordable to households with annual incomes at or below 80% of the Area Median Income, meaning that a family of four would be expected to contribute $69,120 to their home.

The affordable housing crisis is exacerbated when examining the differences between the eastern and western part of the state, according to Cline. He said the eastern part of the county is growing at a much faster rate, and with a higher income.

According to the Census, the median income of areas near Siler City is about $34,000 while areas near Pittsboro are about $100,000.

Cline also said 81% of the growth in the county over the past decade has come in the eastern part of the county near Pittsboro. The growth over the past decade now accounts for 40% of the total Chatham County population.

These factors make the question of what is affordable much more difficult in Chatham. And, according to Plan Chatham’s community profile from 2017, that question is only going to get more difficult over time as estimates for 2031 show disparities across the county increasing, with the highest Census tract having median household income 294% greater than the lowest.

With the growth over the past decade showing no signs of slowing, panelists also discussed balancing the needs of both future and current residents. Howard said it is one of the big policy challenges facing Chatham County.

“What brought me to Chatham was that there was a quiet and a calm to life,” Howard said. “There was a community that embraced people and it was a welcoming place to raise a family. In conversations about Chatham Park we told them we wanted to make Chatham County a place people wanted to be.”

She said for a long time, Chatham has been seen as a community for people to live, but then commute to places like Wake and Orange counties — but now that’s changing.

“We need to spend our tax dollars on things that matter to people that are here right now,” Howard said. “We do need long range plans to meet the demand that’s coming, but we also need to be able to serve our current community … our investment, our conversation, our policies of now will benefit the future.”

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.

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