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Disney latest blue-stater to flee to North Carolina; not all feel the 'magic'
Getty Images/Irfan Khan

Disney latest blue-stater to flee to North Carolina; not all feel the 'magic'

The Walt Disney Company pitches its sprawling Storyliving community as a boon for tiny Pittsboro, N.C., but it's got some locals saying, "There goes the neighborhood."

“The world is tough, it's getting tougher, and therefore we need a sanctuary, a place where it doesn’t feel like you’re just getting by or surviving life, but really living.” So went Waystar RoyCo scion Kendall Roy's pitch for luxe assisted living community Living+.

Like many of the vaguely dystopian ventures dreamed up by the "Succession" writing staff, Living+ took inspiration from reality: plans by the Walt Disney Company to expand its parks and resort experience to residential and retirement communities under the brand Storyliving. Imagine the best of Disney World mixed with the pleasing aesthetics and predictability of Seahaven Island in Jim Carrey’s “The Truman Show.” Doesn’t that sound magical?

I grew up in Chatham County. Pittsboro, the county seat, has a population of just 4,537. This is an area where the town’s police department is supported by fewer than a dozen patrolmen and officers. Not much is going on there, and people there like it that way.

It depends whom you ask. Disney chose the California desert for its first Storyliving community. Named Cotino, the project is currently in presales. The company will be heading east for the sequel, which it calls Asteria. When Disney announced its plan to break ground in Pittsboro, a quaint town in North Carolina’s Chatham County, local developers reacted with enthusiasm. Chatham County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Dasher’s statement is exemplary:

We are excited to learn that Storyliving by Disney selected Pittsboro, North Carolina, for its second residential community in the United States. Chatham County looks forward to working with the Town of Pittsboro, Disney, Chatham Park, and DMB Development as the Asteria community comes to life in the coming years," Dasher continued, "This announcement is the latest major economic development project to choose Chatham County. We are thrilled about the innovative and unique lifestyle that this community will offer our residents as well as a variety of great jobs for our local and regional workforce.

Another win for the region

Dasher’s optimism makes sense. North Carolina has been notching a lot of wins lately in the nationwide race for jobs, economic development, and new residents (primarily disenchanted blue-state refugees seeking the southeast’s lower taxes and cost of living). The Raleigh-Durham area alone (Pittsboro is about 30 miles from Raleigh-Durham Airport) has attracted investment from Wolfspeed (semiconductors), VinFast (EV cars), Boom Supersonic (aviation), Toyota, and Apple. With Disney’s addition to the list, the future seems bright indeed.

Moreover, the pitch for Storyliving makes it sound like just the kind of development an up-and-coming area like Chatham county should encourage. Disney promises a blend of metropolitan amenities with a small-town atmosphere, complemented by ample parks and extensive trails for walking and biking. The development will feature over 4,000 units for single-family and multi-family homes, with designated neighborhoods for residents ages 55 and up. Sales for homes within this Disney utopia are expected to commence by 2027 and cover 1,500 acres in Pittsboro, Chatham County, forming part of the larger Chatham Park community.

Magic or tragic?

For the people who will actually live with Asteria, the story is more complicated. I grew up in Chatham County. Pittsboro, the county seat, has a population of just 4,537. This is an area where the town’s police department is supported by fewer than a dozen patrolmen and officers. Not much is going on there, and people there like it that way.

Take my high school friend Eileen, who lives in Pittsboro and is far more pessimistic about the Mouse House coming to town. “We [already] have a huge issue with water pollution, mostly from Greensboro, N.C. There are also several upscale housing developments here that are unpopulated – with a great need for affordable housing.”

Asteria is unlikely to fill that need. While residents of Pittsboro can expect ample opportunity to work within the community, owning a piece of it will be out of reach for most. The county’s median annual income sits around $50,000-$75,000; a house in a Asteria should go for 20 times that figure, if the $1-2 million price tags for Cotina living are anything to go by.

Nosy neighbor

Disney may also bring with it the same baggage it brought to Florida: contentious politics. The state’s solidly Republican legislature will have a skeptical eye on this utopian community so near the state’s capital, and government watchdogs should be tracking any efforts by the state to subsidize Disney’s new colony. North Carolina participated in the rat race for Amazon HQ2 by offering up $2.2 billion in subsidies for the corporation, but in the end, it did not outbid NYC and Northern Virginia.

These days, of course, Disney’s controversies extend well beyond matters of municipal tax policy. Will the same obsession with DEI and “woke” that tarnished Disney+ and Disney parks come to Asteria? Recent SEC filings show that the company knows all too well that it has been alienating its fan base: “Consumers’ perceptions of our position on matters of public interest, including our efforts to achieve certain of our environmental and social goals, often differ widely and present risks to our reputation and brands.”

But that doesn’t necessarily sound like the company has plans to change course. And including “fostering a culture of lifelong learning” in its goals for Asteria does sound an ominous note, given what passes for “learning” in 2023. At the very least, locals might want prepare themselves for some truly epic HOA-type battles.

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