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Can Cannon mend City Hall’s ties with business?

By Eric Frazier
Eric Frazier
Eric Frazier covers economic development. He has been reporting and editing at the Observer for more than 15 years. If you have a story idea or news tip to share, contact him at:

Patrick Cannon, who will be sworn in as Charlotte mayor on Monday, stepped before members of the Charlotte Chamber this past week and asked for a precious political commodity: cooperation.

An utterly unremarkable request in normal times. But 2013 has been extraordinary when it comes to the nexus between Charlotte’s business and political leadership.

It’s well-known that in Charlotte, big things seem to happen only when our business and political leaders link arms.

We got the Democratic National Convention that way. The fine arts museums uptown. And the light-rail system that’s transformed the South End. Business and politics joining hands – it’s always been “the Charlotte way” of moving a city forward.

But in 2013, we saw that traditional alignment slip, and the fallout wasn’t pretty.

City officials and Republican lawmakers from Charlotte’s suburbs battled over whether the airport should be run by the city or a new regional commission. The lawmakers were said to be acting on behalf of business leaders who feared the city was bent on “politicizing” the airport, using its most successful asset as a municipal piggy bank for projects like the proposed eastside-westside streetcar.

That same streetcar plan splintered the City Council into warring factions. The chamber, to then-Mayor Anthony Foxx’s indignation, wouldn’t get behind the streetcar project, despite his belief that the city’s economic development future hinges on it.

So, with that backdrop, I found Cannon’s appearance before the chamber an interesting bit of political theater. Would he come bearing an olive branch? Or girded for battle?

Just from what I could see that day, I’d say Cannon brought a whole armful of olive branches. Introducing him, Brett Carter, outgoing chamber board president and a Duke Energy executive, described Cannon as a small businessman and family man. “He’s been particularly proud of his efforts to reduce the property tax rate and the city’s crime rate,” Carter said.

Cannon stepped to the podium and recalled the words on a wooden plaque he said his mother kept handy: “Those of you who think you know it all are very annoying to those of us that already do.”

Mending the breach

The audience laughed appreciatively, and he clarified his point. None of us know it all; we all need help.

“Simply stated,” he said, “working together works.”

He went on to praise the chamber for its legacy of helping grow Charlotte’s economy. He gave a shout-out to BusinessFirst, the joint city-chamber program that helps existing businesses. He asked for the group’s support in building voter support for city bonds on the ballot in 2014 and in finding financing for the 2030 Transit Plan.

“Our long-term growth and reinvestment in commercial corridors (are) dependent on transit,” he said. “As the incoming mayor, I am committed to working closely in partnership with the chamber and the business community overall.”

He didn’t specifically mention the streetcar, the third rail of Charlotte politics these days. He mentioned streamlining zoning, permitting and land planning. Keeping the airport a low-cost hub. And expanding jobs.

Nothing a business leader couldn’t like there. When he spoke of areas where the business community’s help is needed, he mentioned apprenticeships, mentoring, support for those re-entering the workforce, and the recruitment of manufacturing jobs.

He wrapped up, to a round of applause, and wished all a good day as he breezed out to his next appointment. If he’s got a tough ask of the business community, he’s saving it for another day.

So, after having studied local politics – and now business – in Charlotte for more than 15 years, here’s what I was left wondering:

•  Foxx was a lawyer, Davidson College graduate and scion of one of the westside’s leading political families. Cannon is a parking lot management firm owner, N.C. A&T graduate and prototypical grass-roots politician. Do their differing backgrounds mean Cannon will be more or less eager than Foxx to align his agenda with that of business leaders?

• Does Cannon’s long history in local politics and business mean he’ll have lots of friends to help him, or lots of old adversaries with grudges to tend?

• And perhaps most importantly, can he help mend the fraying threads of the public-private coalition that traditionally gets the big things done around here?

It’s a lot to ask from a part-time mayor. But I guess we’ll see soon enough.

Eric Frazier writes about development, jobs and the economy. Got a story tip? Contact him at 704-358-5145, efrazier@charlotteobserver.com or @Ericfraz on Twitter.
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