Over 100 community leaders from the Chapel Hill, N.C. area traveled to Ann Arbor this weekend to learn about this city – its town/gown relations, approach to economic development, social services, environmental stewardship and other shared issues, like which city’s residents complain more about parking.
They’ll be here through mid-Tuesday, holding sessions with a variety of local people in government, business and nonprofit groups. The group kicked off the visit with a reception Sunday evening at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum. [.pdf of complete agenda]
This kind of visit isn’t unusual – representatives from Bloomington, Ind., traveled here several years ago, and folks from Ann Arbor have done the same, over the years taking contingents to Austin, Texas and, yes, Chapel Hill. (I went on that Chapel Hill junket about 10 years ago as a reporter with The Ann Arbor News.)
The Chapel Hill group chose Ann Arbor after looking at about a dozen possible locations. “There was something ineffable about Ann Arbor that convinced us. We’re doing a lot of things better than they are, but we really had a sense of a different kind of community, a place we can learn from,” Linda Convissor, one of the trip’s organizers, told The Herald Sun, a newspaper covering Chapel Hill, Durham and the Research Park region.
Trips like these aren’t unconditionally supported, though. This summer, three aldermen from Carrboro, a smaller town neighboring Chapel Hill (think Ypsilanti), questioned the value of the trip. Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnell had this to say to the local newspaper: “This is the wrong time to be spending on non-specific, untargeted items. I do not think the Ann Arbor trip is a sound investment.”
The trip costs between $1,130 to $1,295 per person, depending on whether you doubled up at Campus Inn, where the group is staying. The tab includes meals and transportation, too, and is usually paid for by the institution that employs the person making the trip. The University of North Carolina has the largest number of people attending.
At Sunday’s reception, Jim Heavner – owner of WCHL-1360, a Chapel Hill radio station and one of the trip’s sponsors – urged people to respond to skeptics by saying it’s just like getting a college education: You can’t possibly know its value until after you have it. He spoke of using Ann Arbor as a foil, “to stimulate us to think about doing things a little differently.” The station was broadcasting live from the reception, and will broadcast hourly updates about the visit on Monday.
Most of the sessions will be held at Campus Inn. They’ll also take bus tours of Ann Arbor – to Food Gatherers, the Environmental House, and Spark’s business incubator on East Liberty, among other destinations – and have dinner on Monday night at Zingerman’s Roadhouse. And there’ll likely be at least some people who escape the formal sessions, choosing to explore the city on their own instead.
Bottom line, it’s the shared experiences that might matter most. Quoted in Sunday’s Herald Sun, Mariana Fiorentino, who led the planning committee for this trip, said: “What we’re looking here for is the synergy that will come out of the trip. We’re looking for ways those who are coming will be able to make a difference when they come back home.”
UPDATE (and hyperbole alert): An article published in Monday’s Herald Sun bases its report on a 90-minute bus tour taken by the group Sunday and led by local developer Peter Allen. “We want to show you the advantages of density and how we are re-tooling our entire community for mass transit…We are densifying our downtown and trying to eliminate cars from the community because we believe that there are environmental advantages, public health advantages and safety advantages to doing so.” The article makes the bizarre statement that “Ann Arbor is planning on replacing its buildings that are four to seven stories tall with ones that will be ten to twenty stories high.” [Here's a link - but warning: This site requires you to register before gaining access to its articles.]