From Passion to Predictable
By: Tom Griffen
Sometimes I surprise myself and decide to bake an apple pie. Though I trust in my limited skills, the pie’s structural integrity, visual appeal, and deliciousness is a mystery until the timer buzzes. Regardless, it’s sure to get eaten. I mean, it’s pie after all. Doesn’t have to be pretty to go down just fine with a scoop of vanilla bean or a cup of French Roast. But if I’m being honest, my pie, at its best, is an average pie.
But sometimes (OK, rarely) my baking stars align and I end up with something masterful. An unexpected, unspoiled specimen of flakebutter and sugarfruit beauty. Like someone sneaked in and did an oven switcheroo when I wasn’t looking. Regardless, I’m happy to take all the credit; post pie pics all over social media like it’s no big deal. “Hey world, look what I just whipped up!” As if I do this sort of magic every day.
Mary Jane Nirdlinger flat out told me that when she bakes a pie, the outcome is predictable. Her use of that word floored me. Far as I’m concerned, any baking endeavor is a total roll of the dice. The only expected result, the only thing I can truly calculate, is that something warm and edible will be ready within the hour. And sometimes even that is pushing it.
But Mary Jane has baked enough apple pies to know what works and what does not. She knows the difference between what’s necessary and what simply looks good on an ingredient list. She’ll probably tell you that a streamlined process wins—that being fancy is risky, and often a wasted effort.
Mary Jane’s solid plan is key to a high quality end result. She brings a similar outlook to her position at the Town: Executive Director of Planning and Sustainability. Using the same hard-earned wisdom needed for smart pie-making, she’s attracting new and exciting businesses to Chapel Hill. Then (bonus!) keeping them there. How does she do it? Yep, you guessed it. By making outcomes predictable.
For a long time, folks at Town Hall fielded requests to “make things better.” Rather than sit on their hands, they took action. They streamlined how to help developers choose the best location, then made the renovation process user-friendly and intuitive. With the community’s support, the Town also added staff to their inspections team in order to keep up with momentum. In a nutshell, the Town made a concerted effort to determine what businesses needed to grow with the fewest headaches, then they figured out how to make it happen. Nothing fancy.
At Town Hall, this insistence to make things better is like a vibration, an undertone. It informs every decision, every process, every answered phone or concerned email. Call it a recommitment to customer service or simply doing the right thing, but know with certainty that it defines the town’s current vision, Chapel Hill 2020.
Chapel Hill 2020 is a directional plan birthed in 2012 during an unprecedented collaboration with thousands (yes, thousands) of community members. Citizens and town leaders alike sat around tables together to dial-in how to approach the future of Chapel Hill. If they’d been making pies, they’d have left the meetings covered in flour.
Thus marked the Town’s cultural reset, of sorts. An absolutely necessary move for anyone, or anything, wanting to be relevant (or successful) down the road. My two cents: such a regrouping is also necessary to deepen the human connection within a community. It makes folks happier. And that matters.
Culture is tough to define. Especially in a town as eclectic, diverse, and interesting as Chapel Hill. A shifting culture is even trickier because it’s loaded with historical protocol, old habits, and strong opinions—details that must be understood before we can move forward together, even if it makes for slower progress.
A healthy evolution starts with a vision backed by passionate people—people like Mary Jane Nirdlinger. Someone who can make a delicious apple pie and shrug it off like it’s no biggie. Humbly driven and wildly able—this is how we roll in Chapel Hill.