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Hopper and Hampton Pointe

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The other night, I dreamed I'd rented a loft apartment in a converted mill in Hillsborough. It came with 10-foot ceilings and arched windows, affording me a perfect view of the town's low-slung skyline. Dennis Hopper was my landlord and was renting the place so cheaply--$143 a month--I sensed even in my subconscious state that this was indeed a dream. (Having Hopper for a North Carolina landlord isn't as far-fetched as you might think. Since 1992, he's been restoring one of Wilmington's oldest landmarks, the Masonic Temple.)

The reality I awoke to is that Hillsborough officials are now considering commercial development that could destroy what's left of the town's Colonial-era flavor and small-town charm. Big commercial projects, officials say, will generate needed tax dollars and help plug holes in the debt-ridden water/sewer fund.

That fund went belly-up last summer after Flynt Fabrics, Hillsborough's largest water customer, closed the doors of its Eno Street dye house. Local water customers were slapped with a 33 percent increase with out-of-town users bearing the biggest share. Even so, the fund is expected to show a $500,000 deficit in 2002.

Hillsborough officials are now courting large commercial projects--the very kind a task force spent a year trying to ward off--in hopes the added revenues will help shore up the town's finances. One of those, Hampton Pointe, will be debated within the next month or so.

There are alternatives. The buildings that housed Flynt and any number of local factories since the turn of the 20th century remain in good repair. Some Hillsborough officials have suggested taking a closer look at Durham's plans for its old factory buildings as a model for how to squeeze tax dollars out of resources already in place. Empty industrial shells in Hillsborough could be transformed into apartments, coffee houses, bookstores, or art supply stores--all places that could provide services to a blossoming literary and artistic community.

But if Hampton Pointe developers Bill Anderson and Jerry Dickens get their way, they'll add a 550,000-square-foot edifice to N.C. 86, which links up with Churton Street, Hillsborough's main drag. Like proud papas, Anderson and Dickens promise the sort of amenities that were part of their first venture, North Pointe Shopping Center in Durham. Among them are a Home Depot, garden center, gas station, fast food outlet and another bank.

Fifty-eight acres of half-century-old hardwoods and rolling hills would be leveled for the project. Nearly 60 percent of that acreage--named Hampton Pointe because the site served as the last encampment for Confederate General Wade Hampton at the close of the Civil War--would be paved over for parking spaces and drive-throughs. State Department of Transportation figures show the project would add 22,700 vehicle trips a day on N.C. 86. The current daily traffic count hovers at 8,200.

Anywhere U.S.A. has already arrived in Hillsborough. The landscape of the town, once defined by its history and architecture, is increasingly defined by fast-food joints and convenience stores. The proposed new project would be sandwiched between Interstate 85, a truck stop, several gas stations and a massage parlor.

As one of those out-of-town water customers who values Hillsborough's fading colonial character, I'll take the higher water rates and keep dreaming that Hopper rides into town soon.

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