Pandemic aftermath could be ‘game changer’ for Chatham County

Posted 10/2/20

A panel of experts and observers agreed in last Thursday’s Chatham Development Briefing 2020 — “Strengthening and Moving Forward,” hosted by the Chatham Chamber of Commerce — that Chatham …

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Pandemic aftermath could be ‘game changer’ for Chatham County

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A panel of experts and observers agreed in last Thursday’s Chatham Development Briefing 2020 — “Strengthening and Moving Forward,” hosted by the Chatham Chamber of Commerce — that Chatham County is poised to welcome an infusion of new money from around the country as the coronavirus pandemic wanes and business reignites.

“It appears we’ve gotten our hands around the virus,” N.C. State economics professor Michael Walden, the lead panelist, said. “At least we’ve not overwhelmed the healthcare system. Most governors around the country have relaxed stay-at-home orders, they have allowed many of those parts of the economy that had shut down to reopen. So, since May, we have actually seen a fairly good rebound in the economy.”

Unique properties of the pandemic-induced recession could mean more for Chatham County than just a quick return to pre-coronavirus economic health, though. They have introduced the potential for vast economic expansion as droves of big-city dwellers abandon their overpopulated metropolises for the relative sanctuary of areas like North Carolina’s Triangle region.

What they’re saying:

“I think the definition of quality of life is going to change,” Walden said. “I think there is going to be more of an emphasis on safety, especially safety from disease, which might influence how residential development and commercial development change over time.

• “One of the things that we know about this virus is it loves dense areas — big cities where people are packed together. And we’ve already seen numbers suggesting, for example in the New York Metropolitan area, that 200,000 people have left.”

• “This might actually be a plus for North Carolina,” Walden continued. “I would also think that for Chatham County — which is really uniquely located between two metropolitan areas, the Triad and the Triangle, yet very accessible to those — this could be a game-changer in terms of improving its economy, growing in people, growing businesses. So that is something very much to look forward to and anticipate.

Sam Rauf, project manager for the Chatham Economic Development Corporation, chimed in that prohibitive cost of living expenses already had big-city folks contemplating a move. The pandemic just pushed them over the edge.

• “In a lot of urban cities, the cost of living is just becoming too high for businesses as well as for residents,” he said. “Whether they’ve lost their jobs or lost revenue due to COVID, we’re seeing a large amount of people and businesses looking to leave some of those large metro cities, whether it’s in California or New York. They’re looking for a place that has a low cost of living as well as a high quality of life, and Chatham County is one of the best places in the country for that.”

It’s not all good news, though: Several barriers to expansion still exist across Chatham County. They must be addressed in advance of a potential migration from large cities if the result is to be sustainable. One major inhibitor is a crippling shortage of reliable broadband.

• “We see multiple people trying to access limited broadband, and in some parts of the county not really having any broadband,” said Karen Howard, the chairperson of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners. “So, expansion continues to be a top legislative priority.”

• “We’re going to keep at it. But, recognize it won’t happen overnight, and it remains essential that the General Assembly remove key barriers,” she added.

• They include “the prohibition of leasing county facilities to providers and allowing rural phone cooperatives to expand into new areas without boundary restrictions.”

A second problem is straggling infrastructure, especially in the county’s western towns. People will not move to an area if there are no jobs to be had, the panelists emphasized.

• “We have to continue to work with the towns on development,” Rauf said, “as well as certain areas of the county like the megasites and in other areas that have been designated for growth making sure that we get the infrastructure there that’s needed to support that growth.”

The bottom line: There is opportunity for tremendous economic expansion in Chatham County, but nothing is guaranteed. As long as the pandemic drags on, predictions of future development demand remain tenuous and plans to expand in preparation for a population spike are precarious.

• “The bad news is, the virus is not licked yet,” Walden said. “We have to watch it, we have to track it, we have to do the things we need to do to control it.”

• “The good news is, though, I do think there’s light at the end of the tunnel … I do think the economy will get back on its feet and if any economy can do that, it’s certainly here in North Carolina and certainly in Chatham County.”

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