Hillsborough - Homegrown Tools

Hillsborough, NC

Updated: 2017

With an identity proudly rooted in its small town history, and a location ideal for commercial development, Hillsborough strikes a savvy balance between preservation of its past and growth for its future.

Population2020 7,162
Median Household Income2020$65,591
Poverty Rate 20209.4%
Proximity to Urban Center 14 miles to Durham, N.C.
Proximity to Interstate Highway 2 miles
Case Study Time Frame 1991-2007
Municipal Budget FY202125.5 million
Data Source: US Census, American Community Survey
View Complete Case StudyUpdated: Hillsborough, 2017

In 2007, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Hillsborough as one of the nation’s dozen distinctive destinations.2 Steeped in history, Hillsborough has taken bold steps to create a vibrant heritage tourism economy, but not at the expense of commercial and industrial development. The story of this unique community in eastern Orange County is about how to hold onto the old and embrace the new—all at the same time, and in a sustainable, community inclusive manner. According to the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough, “Living in Hillsborough is not about isolating the past in a time capsule. It is about managing change; integrating the old and new in ways that improve the quality of life in our community; and maintaining the unique qualities that make Hillsborough such a great place to live, work and visit.” This story explores how Hillsborough bridges historic preservation and managed growth to achieve impressive economic development outcomes.


What are the lessons learned from this story?


Use public resources strategically.  After financing and constructing a new reservoir, local officials were well aware of the limits of the existing water supply. Rather than grant water resources to any development or to the highest bidder, local officials used their municipal water resources to shape development. Development that was consistent with the community’s vision was granted access. Development that was inconsistent with what the community wanted was denied access.
Know your market.  Hillsborough’s annexation and rezoning review processes have become important instruments for shaping development. Rather than entering negotiations with developers from a position of weakness, local officials in Hillsborough have leverage because they understand the value of their market to developers. The basis for negotiating with developers should be rooted in an assumption that developers ought to be responsible for providing adequate infrastructure for their development. Communities need to understand their local market conditions and be prepared to take tough stands on issues of infrastructure provision.
Use growth management to advance the community’s vision for economic development.  Hillsborough demonstrates that managing growth, or being proactive about how development proceeds in a community, does not stifle economic growth. In the last two years, Hillsborough’s nonresidential tax base increased by almost $30 million. This did not happen by chance. The community insisted that new residential developments be accompanied by commercial space. When done thoughtfully, and as part of a widely shared community vision, managing growth and economic development can complement each other.  Historic assets are economic development assets.