Mayor Tom Stevens wants the Town of Hillsborough to have a dual focus — future growth and preservation of town character.
So he said in his 11th annual State of the Town Address on Monday at the Town Hall Annex, an event that began with readings by Hillsborough Poet Laureate Dee Stribling and N.C. Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green and ended with Stevens setting three goals for residents.
“We will have to deal with change and there will be gnashing of teeth,” he said. “But we have the wherewithal to manage these things if we do that from an informed [place], if we do that by choosing love, and if we are prepared and have the basics taken care of.”
“Goodbyes and hellos”
Stevens quickly moved to some “goodbyes” that residents had to say in the last year — such as Daniel Boone Village and Mystery Brewing Company— beginning a theme of embracing change that continued throughout the speech.
“There’s a significant anxiety about growth, change, traffic, losing character,” he said.
He continued by highlighting local arts and tourism and citing an Orange County Arts Commission and Hillsborough Arts Council report that said the town brought in nearly two and a half times the amount it invested in the arts in audience revenue.
Stevens also pointed to Hillsborough’s industry, listing businesses in town that rank among some of the largest private employers in the county.
“If you look at this list, particularly of the private industries, [there is] Eurosport, PHE, Summit consulting, those are all home-grown businesses,” he said.
He circled back to growth throughout the address, and said that, while Hillsborough is growing at a rate unprecedented for the town, its expansion is not following the growth trends of neighboring towns such as Cary and Holly Springs.
“Our growth and the number of residences is unprecedented for Hillsborough, but it is not exploding,” he said. “Hillsborough is probably going to top out [around] 15,000 people. There’s a limit to how big we can grow simply because of water and sewer ability.”
Cost of Hillsborough
The mayor went on to cover cost of living. He said that, while there are still a number of fairly affordable properties in Hillsborough, these areas are ripe for gentrification, and the building costs in Hillsborough are high — close to $150 per square foot.
He said the town is supporting increasing the minimum wage, at least for town employees, to $15 an hour to combat the rising cost of living.
“Building Hillsborough town-like” was another area of focus in Stevens’ address, and, moving forward, he said that the town will focus on building mixed-use communities with residential, commercial and public use properties in the same neighborhood as well as upping connectivity in neighborhoods.
“We really want to focus on mixed-use communities as a way of keeping the town’s character and making it livable and giving it at least our best shot for as much diversity and affordability as possible given what the market conditions are,” he said.
Budget-wise, the town has about $22 million to work with. Stevens said that the funds fall into two main groups — water, sewer and stormwater, and the general fund.
The general fund covers planning, zoning regulations, police and firemen, roads, sidewalks and parks, solid waste, land use, regulation and economic development.
“We are one of the only towns around that does a multi-year budget,” Stevens said. “We have this mantra...take care of what we have, invest in the future, do the best we can to minimize rate impacts.”
In terms of current projects over the last year, Stevens spotlighted the ongoing Eno River Reservoir expansion and the West Hillsborough connectivity project and Town Hall Annex completions.
Looking ahead, Stevens listed some upcoming challenges, including unexpected weather disasters such as last week’s tornado, unforeseen financial changes, road construction, high tax rates, a tight town budget, affordability and the trickle-down of state and national issues.
“We’ve got some things ahead of us that are not insignificant,” he said. “We have a lot of assets to help us be resilient against these types of issues, but we’re going to have to stick together as a community.”
He finished the speech with an analogy comparing Hillsborough to a beloved local business, Cup A Joe.
“Cup A Joe used to be in this little tiny corner, and people loved it...and then they moved to a much bigger spot, and they have a nice kitchen and they can do more,” he said. “It’s still a beloved place where people gather and even more of them can do that — and that’s what Hillsborough is going to be like.”