Getting to Know Meg McGurk
By: Tom Griffen
Meg McGurk remembers the first time she and her husband rolled into town. Newly graduated from college and looking for a place to put down roots, they had one geographic rule—settle somewhere east of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon. While wrapping up an exploratory road trip, they took the Chapel Hill exit off Interstate 40. It was Saturday evening. Summertime. Late afternoon when everything’s glowing.
Back then, they knew the Chapel Hill everyone knew—Dean Smith and #23. But nothing prepared them for their drive up a canopied Franklin Street. Inching past historic stone walls, ornate southern houses, then alongside UNC campus, they knew they’d arrived home. They grabbed a pizza at IP3, nabbed a newspaper, and found jobs in the classifieds. They were smitten.
Since Chapel Hill’s founding in 1793, its citizens have always come and gone. The university cycle churns the population every four years. Whether or not we’re directly connected to UNC, we’re all participants in this repeating bustle and hush.
As such, we know better than to plan anything during March. We also know to expect a late-July mass exodus to the coast where a salty breeze might take the edge off. We know to avoid cafés during finals. We enjoy the quiet that overtakes our streets between terms.
In 2004, the Town of Chapel Hill and UNC founded the Downtown Partnership, an organization whose mission is to bundle resources of the Town, university, and community. Executive Director Meg McGurk and her team aim to enhance and promote downtown as the social, cultural, and spiritual center of Chapel Hill. They want development to be more transparent to townspeople.
It’s a special thing when a town and its university are intricately woven together. Seems like a no-brainer, but such awareness and collaboration isn’t common on a national stage.
“There’s an ease of communication between Mayor Hemminger, Chancellor Folt, and the affiliated staffs. Each feels a deep sense of trust and responsibility for the other,” Meg said.
With an overarching focus on recruitment and retention of businesses, the goal is to be creative, motivational, and daring enough to make Chapel Hill a place where residents and businesses build community together.
On any given day, Meg and her vibrant team work towards the betterment of Chapel Hill. By the time I arrived around 1:00pm, they’d already completed a laundry list of tasks: met with Habitat for Humanity to discuss the Northside neighborhood development, brainstormed farmers market ideas, worked with a consultant to invigorate 140 West, considered the town’s “ugly” bus stops, handled social media, and spoke with police about lighting pass-through alleys. A normal morning in their world.
Downtown Partnership’s ongoing town-specific projects include: Downtown 2020, better signage for developments and businesses, and bike rack “stations” that allow bus riders to practice loading their bicycles before boarding. Additionally, there are parking programs and special events in the works, and they’re ensuring that construction lane closures won’t impede merchants. There’s also a incentive-based initiative for property owners to remove unsightly graffiti. And the list goes on.
UNC-driven efforts include LaUNCh, an award winning business incubator focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Also, Tar Heel Downtown and Night Lights, efforts with UNC athletics and Moorhead Planetarium, respectively. The Good Neighbor initiative is a meet-and-greet for student residents in downtown neighborhoods. The Campus and Community Coalition is geared to reduce underage and high-risk drinking. And again, such teamwork merely scratches the surface.
“The Town, UNC, and The Downtown Partnership want to do whatever it takes to make downtown a healthy and thriving environment,” Meg said.
Meg’s enthusiasm is contagious. And considering how many plates she’s spinning, she couldn’t have been more hospitable.
“Every day I find another reason to love being here!” Meg said.
Meg and her husband now have a family. She wants her kids to go away for college and doesn’t worry about them forgetting where they’re from.
“They were born here. It’s in their DNA to be a Heel,” she said. “Even my 7-year old can make a Duke joke without any prompting.”