Aaron Nousaine is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning. He is currently working with the Land-of-Sky Regional Council in Asheville through the Carolina Economic Revitalization Corps (CERC).
While the majority of my previous posts have focused on the various contributions of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council to local economic development in the western North Carolina, the purpose of this post is to highlight the work being done through the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill’s Department of City and Regional Planning (DCRP). One of the top ranked planning schools in the nation, the DCRP requires each graduate student enrolled in the department to participate in a client based workshop course at some point during their tenure. The purpose of this requirement is to provide students, who may or may not have prior professional experience, with the opportunity to engage with public entities regarding real world planning and economic development issues. This process not only allows students to make connections with potential employers, it also permits the department to foster and grow its relationships with local planning institutions.
For my part, I have participated in two workshop style projects during my time at UNC. The first, a little over a year ago, was oriented toward developing a revitalization plan for the Cornelius Street corridor along Highway 70 on the northern edge of Hillsborough. Since this project took place during my first six months living in North Carolina, it allowed me to get to know my community more closely by forcing me to plunge into the milieu of Orange County community and economic development.
To officially satisfy my workshop requirement, however, I also enrolled this last semester in the current economic development oriented workshop course. Building on the success of one of last year’s workshops, the current course partnered with the Orange County Economic Development Commission to evaluate the potential capacity of UNC to generate entrepreneurial activity in Orange County. Guided by Dr. Bill Lester, DCRPs newest faculty member, the project team found that there is a substantial volume of new technologies and business concepts being generated by students and researchers at the university. Unfortunately, research also uncovered significant barriers that could encourage these new and growing businesses to locate elsewhere in the research triangle region, rather than locate in Orange County. For the most part, the barriers that the team identified ran along the lines of what we had expected. High property taxes were one main factor, and the lack of affordable space was another. This later element may have been addressed with the development of Carolina North and the Innovation Center, if those plans had not fallen by the way side.
Ultimately, what this experience has proved, and what this post should ultimately convey, is that these experiences are valuable. They benefit students by giving us opportunities to engage and to be engaged. They offer us a contextual depth that is simply unachievable through a textbook alone. According to the responses we received from those who were present for the project team’s presentation, these experiences also offer an important value for their clients and reinforcement of the university’s connection to the community that surrounds it. In my opinion, what the Carolina Economic Revitalization Corp has done is take some of the most valuable attributes of a workshop curriculum and embedded its corp. members deeply into the pedagogy of applied learning.