If Cam Hill had his way, the University of North Carolina would be putting up new buildings in Fayetteville, or Elizabeth City, or anywhere but Chapel Hill. UNC is wonderful, a great industry and the main reason Chapel Hill is a charming town, he says. But the university is becoming gargantuan, and its plan to add 8,000-plus students and staff to the main campus is shocking. And Meadowmont? "It's kind of appalling," Hill says. "Why wasn't the developer required to build what the zoning called for, which was single-family houses?"
So, after yet another anguished conversation with friends about the terrible things being done to Chapel Hill, and the, uh, "transient individuals" responsible for them (namely, UNC-Chapel Hill brass who came from somewhere else and will be gone before too long) Hill, 48, decided he was tired of feeling like a victim.
His answer? He's a candidate for mayor.
It would be easy to dismiss Hill. In fact, he virtually invites you to dismiss him, gesturing to a box full of unread stuff Town Manager Cal Horton has sent over and asking off-handedly if Smedes York is still mayor of Raleigh. (No, not for about 20 years.)
Whether he wins is "completely immaterial" to him. "I don't know if I should say this or not," he goes on--this is the way many things he says begin-- "but getting elected would terrify me. I mean, I'm willing to do it. ..."
On the other hand, he was born in Chapel Hill--the only one of the three candidates who was--and knows a lot of people in town, though interestingly, not Kevin Foy or Lee Pavao. They are "the sort of people" who like sitting in meetings and running the town, Hill says, not disparagingly.
For his part, he hates meetings, much preferring to be outdoors. That's why, although his dad was on the medical school faculty at Chapel Hill (and mom was head of volunteers at the university's Memorial Hospital for 25 years), the younger Hill never went to college, choosing instead to go into construction.
From his start as a carpenter, he put together a construction business, built and was co-owner of the original Crook's Corner restaurant and then went into fine cabinet-making, at one time employing 65 people. His company did all the woodwork in the Dean Dome, for example.
Hill sold the business during his divorce and for seven years since, has cut back, working 20-25 hours a week in home inspections and repairs while he concentrates on helping bring up his three children. His wife got the farm in Chatham County. He's back living in a little house in town that he bought long ago and rented out. It needs a lot of work. "The cobbler's children never have any shoes," he laughs.
Hill's house is in an interesting place. It's at the western edge of town, a block up from Franklin Street, and right across the way is the terminus of an old rail bed that runs all the way up to UNC-Chapel Hill's Horace Williams tract. Who owns the two vacant lots of either side of his house? The university does.
Hill knows perfectly well that even if he were the mayor of Chapel Hill, he couldn't stop growth cold. But he thinks the next mayor should be working overtime to slow it down and cut it back.
"Let's use the charming streets of our town as our guide," Hill says. "The mindset seems to be that we are helpless in a descent into becoming the next Cary. Well, you can't stop it if you don't try."