“One Chatham” community forum brings Chatham’s east and west together

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Alexis Allston/Our Chatham

The audience at "One Chatham", a community forum, listens intently.

For a diverse community that spans over 700 square miles, Chatham County residents seemed connected, communicative and ready to brainstorm solutions at the “One Chatham” community forum held Wednesday in Pittsboro.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss issues of economic development, housing and disparity across the county. The Chatham News + Record partnered with Our Chatham to host the event, and a panel of five community leaders helped facilitate the conversation: Alyssa Byrd, Tami Schwerin, Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, Paul Cuadros and Susan Levy. Bill Horner III, publisher of the Chatham News + Record, served as the panel’s moderator.

The panelists at One Chatham from left to right: Alyssa Byrd, Paul Cuadros, Susan Levy, Tami Schwerin, and Stephanie Watkins-Cruz. (Alexis Allston/Our Chatham)

The forum began with a discussion of the definition and possible causes of economic inequality. According to the 2018 Chatham County Community Assessment, the median household income level of East Chatham County is almost $32,000 higher than in the west. Cuadros, a professor, investigative reporter and author who lives in the area, addressed that divide.

“I often think that people in West Chatham feel neglected and without a voice,” Cuadros said.  And yet, it also contains our largest municipality, and it is among the most diverse parts of our county.”

Watkins-Cruz, a policy analyst for the county, cited a need for more affordable housing and more individual living units. Others brought up healthcare needs, a desire to attract millennials to the area, and the lack of access to food some Chatham residents face.

County commissioner Karen Howard, who attended the meeting alongside fellow county commissioner Diana Hales and Pittsboro commissioner Pamela Baldwin, called for county-wide collaboration to combat issues like food insecurity.

“We do have enough food, she said.” “We have enough of everything. I think that what ends up happening is that the opportunity and access is concentrated in specific areas and we’re not necessarily, as a community, doing a good job of spreading that out.”

“We don’t need to have starving people in Chatham County,” Schwerin said.

But the news wasn’t all dire. One example of the county’s already strong commitment to equity and togetherness, and a topic of discussion at the forum, was the Chatham Promise initiative. It awards the county’s qualifying high school students with two free years of tuition at Central Carolina Community College.

Levy, a panelist and former executive director of Orange County’s Habitat for Humanity, also praised the diverse crowd (estimated at 5,000 attendees) who attended Siler City’s “Spring Chicken” festival earlier this month.

And panelists and attendees proposed solutions to some of the county’s needs, ranging from visual storytelling to collaboration between public and private entities and, most of all, a call for cross-county empathy.

Byrd, the president of Chatham County’s Economic Development Corporation, said that the county’s issues are not uncommon.

“Someone else is coming up with solutions,” she said, referring to other towns and cities here or around the country. “We can learn from each other and implement best practices that work for us: either on a town level, county level or regional level.”

Schwerin said the answer to the county’s issues lies in diversity. She called for an “asset map” of the county and collaboration between government entities, nonprofits and private businesses.

“We need to surround ourselves with people that are not like us,” she said. “… I think we actually have the solutions here, we just have to keep digging and we need to keep listening to each other.”

And Byrd charged Chatham County residents to keep engaging in the conversation:

“Don’t be part of perpetuating the divide,” she said. “We touched on this: communicate, participate, engage.”

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