CHARLOTTE, N.C. At last weeks Democratic National Convention, Charlotte debuted on the world stage. The performance?
You might say it was the unexpected hit of the season.
Visitors praised Charlottes walkable uptown, helpful police officers, good restaurants and you knew this was coming our friendliness.
Theres no hospitality quite like Southern hospitality! Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gushed on the convention stage. Daily Show host Jon Stewart put it another way: Youre the nicest people, he told an ImaginOn audience. Its really kind of annoying.
Terry McAuliffe, former Democratic National Committee boss, even kindly teased Mayor Anthony Foxx that Charlotte should be the Democrats permanent convention site.
This is not to say that everything went perfectly. We know New York Post columnist Cindy Adams didnt enjoy her time here. Adams claimed in a column that there are more people in her New York buildings elevator than in Charlotte. And that North Carolinians eat ribs for breakfast. Which we dont. Usually.
We also heard complaints about seedy hotels, over-the-top security and transportation stumbles. And were quite aware that 35,000 convention attendees endured an abnormally rainy week.
Foxx said the city plans to review the weeks operations. Every convention city has problems, the mayor said, but he has never been prouder of Charlottes public employees.
Despite any shortcomings, visitors many in Charlotte for the first time said they were impressed.
This is one of the most hospitable places weve ever visited, said delegate Karen Garcia, treasurer of the Arkansas Democratic Party. I definitely could see Charlotte hosting other big events on the size of the convention.
Its been a home run in every way, said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Denvers mayor when it hosted the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Like Denver, youve got a vibrant, robust downtown that most of the rest of the country knew nothing about. Now they do.
Some had low expectations
Maybe Charlotte benefited because some people had low expectations for this convention. In 2011, when the city was chosen as host, we heard complaints that Charlotte was too small. Media portrayed us as a NASCAR-loving town located somewhere north of Atlanta.
What Ive noticed over the years, especially in the North and Northeast, is that peoples stereotype of any place south of the Mason-Dixon Line comes from tobacco road movies, says Mary Newsom, an associate director at UNC Charlottes Urban Institute. People fly into Charlotte for the first time, she says, expecting Bull Connor and Blanche DuBois.
Instead, the nation has seen that Charlotte is a clean, great-quality-of-life city, Foxx said Friday. They found out that we had the guts to go after this... when a lot of people thought we had no business trying to get a convention. We worked together to deliver an amazing week.
Jacquelyn Orton, who lives in Salt Lake City, thought Charlotte was a great convention choice walkable, accessible and friendly. Orton is the widow of the late Congressman Bill Orton, and Charlotte marked her sixth DNC.
Cities like New York City theyre prepared, but not necessarily happy to see you. I think there is something to be said for bringing a major convention to a midsized city, she said. The people were so happy to have us there.
Local restaurants, pilloried by some out-of-town critics before the convention began, proved popular with many out-of-towners.
Ive never liked grits, said Ric Andersen, who works on Capitol Hill. But I had three different kinds of grits this week that Ive actually enjoyed.
The citys image also traveled well, former Republican mayor Richard Vinroot said. He spent convention week on a Greek cruise, getting glimpses of coverage through CNN.
Im literally seeing how we look to the world, and we look pretty darn good, he said Thursday from a ship on the Aegean Sea. Has it been worth it? Who knows. But Im on a ship with people from all over the world, and now they all know about Charlotte.
A second-tier city
Until recently, Charlotte couldnt have pulled off the convention.
Even though some locals bristled last month when Reuters, the international news agency, described Charlotte as a second-tier city, you could argue that Charlotte only reached the second tier a short time ago. That came with the help of $6 billion in private and public investments in the uptown from 2000 to 2010.
Five years ago, we didnt have the Lynx light-rail line, which opened in late 2007. The EpiCentre was still a year away. There was no Ritz-Carlton hotel, N.C. Music Factory, Knight Theater or Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. They didnt open until 2009. The city also didnt have the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Mint Museum Uptown or the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which all came along in 2010.
Even in 2012, hosting was a stretch, or, as Charlotte Center City Partners President and CEO Michael Smith said, it was Charlottes all-in moment, where we just pushed the stash of chips in.
Many of those investments followed the Charlotte City Councils approval of a spending plan in 2001 that led to construction of the Time Warner Cable Arena, a controversial move voters had opposed in a nonbinding referendum.
Subsequent City Council votes helped bring the Westin hotel and museum row on South Tryon Street, vital amenities during convention week, said former council member Lynn Wheeler, a Republican, and a key contributor in the arena and hotel votes.
UNC Charlottes David Walters, an architecture and urban design professor, hopes city leaders will continue investing in infrastructure trains, streetcars, sidewalks. If we backtrack on the environment or infrastructure, we can kiss our future hopes goodbye.
Charlotte Center City Partners hopes to parlay Charlottes new higher profile into economic development, Smith said, but the process wont necessarily be a linear one.
A talented young person might come to Charlotte for a first job, or a business might look to invest or relocate a corporate headquarters. They might not draw a line back to the DNC, he said. Theyre just going to know about our city.
So whats Charlottes next big thing? A Republican convention would be fine, Foxx said, but not the stretch that the city has shown its ready to make.
I think we should begin looking at a Super Bowl, Foxx said. Longer term, we should begin thinking about the Olympics.
Whether Charlotte pursues those events or not, Dan Murrey, executive director of Charlottes host committee, predicts well see a subsiding of the striving to be something different that has characterized the city in recent years.
Instead, we may just be happy to show off who we are.
Said UNCCs Walters: We are second tier. We need second-tier cities. Cities like us are the real engines of American prosperity and progress. Weve shown that a really good second-tier American city is a good place.
Maria David, Tim Funk, Marion Paynter, David Perlmutt and Kathleen Purvis contributed.