This article was written for our sponsor, Visit Chapel Hill.
Like many cities across the country, the town of Chapel Hill is making adjustments as it adopts a "new normal" amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. What hasn't changed is the college town's Tar Heel spirit.
"The pandemic shifted our plans for the year, but we've been trying to pivot as quickly as we can in as many creative ways as possible," said Matt Gladdek, executive director of the Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership. "We had been in the middle of a strategic planning process when COVID-19 hit. It became clear that the landscape was changing, so we put that process on hold and came up with a new plan."
The Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership is a 501c3 organization that manages partnership efforts for Chapel Hill's downtown, including supporting an emphasis on enhancing and promoting the assets of downtown and addressing its fundamental needs to "foster an environment that supports economic growth and prosperity."
In May, Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership launched a campaign, Experience Downtown Chapel Hill (XDCH), to help champion Chapel Hill businesses and fuel economic growth during these unprecedented times. XDCH is raising funds to support businesses affected by the pandemic and in the future, will use further funds to provide safe and free events and programs to help create a dynamic downtown destination for everyone.
"The campaign also serves as a platform to invite people downtown for physically distanced, responsible living that supports our businesses and reinvigorates our community," stated a Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership press release. "For decades, downtown Chapel Hill has been the town's hub for economic, social and cultural activity. The area's many restaurants, bars, retailers, venues and other small businesses were hit especially hard during the two-month closure prompted by the pandemic. XDCH will help support recovery by encouraging patrons to safely return to this business district."
A quick trip downtown on Franklin Street makes it easy to see things are a little different. People are wearing masks and some businesses aren't open, but it's doing what it can to make do. A closer look will reveal XDCH branded stickers on the ground to promote social distancing, "wear a mask" signs in business windows, and poster reminders for people to wash their hands.
Chapel Hill remained predominantly closed during Phase I of the government shut down and stay-at-home order, but many downtown restaurants and businesses have now reopened and are taking safety precautions for customers. Outdoor dining, curbside pickup and occupancy limits are just a few measures being put into practice.
"We also ordered 3,000 masks to distribute to as many downtown businesses as we could on a first serve basis to make sure that if someone comes into a business without a mask, that they have one to offer the patron and reduce the need for conflict to arise," said Gladdek.
The Town is capitalizing on less foot traffic in order to complete these expansions and other street level projects.
"We've also been working closely with the economic development department, local transportation, and other services to work on the concept of expanding sidewalk space since we have a lot less traffic downtown right now," said Gladdek.
While the start of the semester in downtown Chapel Hill may not look like past years, it's spirited energy remains intact thanks to the presence of longtime local institutions like the Carolina Inn on Pittsboro Street.
The Carolina Inn, often described as the University of North Carolina's "living room", has remained open during the duration of the pandemic and like many other hospitality businesses, has been doing what it can to make staff and patrons feel safe. The iconic campus hotel has been hosting visitors, UNC families and special events since 1924.
"The restaurant did shut down at the end of March, but we just reopened. We wanted to be really cautious as we reopened our food and beverage operation," said Heidi Werner, marketing director for the Carolina Inn. "The Carolina Inn with its Carolina energy has always been a very bustling spot."
During the pandemic the Inn was averaging an occupancy of 30 rooms per night despite its 185-room availability. Werner said this was definitely a change of pace for the hotel. Additionally, the Inn has also been unable to host its famous Fridays on the Front Porch series, an event of live music and food trucks, which typically draws large crowds.
Even though things have been different for the Carolina Inn, especially with all the safety precautions its taking for its staff and guests, it's still been able to host small outdoor events and even a few intimate weddings.
"People still want to get married," said Werner of the Carolina Inn, which is a popular wedding venue due to its beauty and unique southern charm. "We still wanted to be able to provide that service to people, whether things were moving around Chapel Hill or not."
Werner said she believes the "Tar Heel spirit starts with service first" and the Inn is doing its best to keep things moving.
"We feel this intrinsic need to serve our community," she said. "We serve one another because we want to see each other do the very best they can. We support the community and the community has certainly only been supportive of us. When we opened the restaurant, people came out in droves last week because they wanted to make sure that we knew how much they appreciated us being back open again. There's a deep sense of accountability that we feel to the community to offer them a service and to be safe while we're doing it."
Despite the uncertain times, residents, students and visitors still have a lot to look forward to in the coming months according to Gladdek.
"We've got some more ideas up our sleeves that we're working on. We just hired Kaze Thomas from VibeHouse 405, which is the downtown Chapel Hill recording studio. I hired him as a contract employee and he is going to try to help us reimagine some socially distanced downtown events," said Gladdek. "We want to provide a safe space for people to come down. Not necessarily at the same time, but you know, we're looking at ways that we can bring people downtown without bringing them out in droves."
"We have a lot of really fantastic businesses that put their heart and soul into things and are constantly trying to find new ways to make it through this and to take care of their employees," continued Gladdek. "Chapel Hill is a special place that evokes a lot of deep emotion and response and I'm here in this job because I love Chapel Hill and I want to make downtown as exciting and a vibrant place as possible for all people."
This article was written for our sponsor, Visit Chapel Hill.