U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Charlotte’s former mayor, touted the Queen City as a model for a nation that he said must move beyond partisan squabbles to fix its crumbling infrastructure.
Foxx spoke Tuesday at the Charlotte Chamber’s annual meeting in one of his highest-profile appearances in the city since taking his Cabinet post. At the chamber’s end-of-the-year gathering, the city’s business and political leaders celebrated 2013 as a year in which Charlotte’s economic recovery accelerated.
Foxx, who was sworn in as the nation’s secretary of transportation in July, said that during his time as mayor he worked with business leaders to put 13,000 Charlotte residents back to work, extend the Lynx Blue Line, host the Democratic National Convention and begin discussions about the proposed east-west streetcar project.
“Despite the economic challenges and shifting political winds, we worked together to put in place the building blocks for the future,” he said, “to give our people and our businesses, now and tomorrow, a solid foundation for growth.”
He added: “We took the long view.”
He said Republicans and Democrats in Washington, despite all the bickering, all agree that the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure aren’t keeping pace with the nation’s needs.
He called for a national transportation plan that integrates roads, transit, rail and air systems. But such ambitious reforms face political headwinds.
The federal highway trust fund, a key source of road-building and maintenance money for states, is “teetering on the edge” of solvency, he said. And the current two-year transportation bill is nearing expiration.
“Despite all this, I still believe we can tackle our infrastructure deficit,” he said. “And I believe we can do it in the same way we accomplished so much here in Charlotte: by pulling together.”
He called for the federal transportation department to move projects faster, especially major ones where “an awful lot of time and money” is spent meeting federal requirements.
Asked by reporters later if there were any Charlotte projects that fit that description, he said ethics rules prevent him from speaking specifically about projects in his hometown. However, he said growing areas of the South and West are increasingly congested and in need of new infrastructure.
The fate of the streetcar plan he championed remains unclear. It failed earlier this year to win a key federal grant, but city officials said they will keep seeking ways to finance it.
The streetcar plan splintered the City Council during Foxx’s tenure, with current Mayor Patrick Cannon and others initially declining to support it. The chamber also balked at supporting the project, despite Foxx’s declarations at the time that it was crucial to Charlotte’s development.
In a brief question-and-answer session with reporters, Foxx congratulated Cannon on winning the mayor’s office. “He’s a good politician. He knows this city well,” Foxx said. “He’s been around for 20 years doing things for the city. For him it’s just going to be a matter of waking up every day and getting after making the city better.”
Asked if he had had a chance to speak with Cannon, Foxx said he sent him a personal note after the election.
Celebrating job gains
Chamber officials used the night to celebrate what outgoing board Chairman Brett Carter called a successful year that found the chamber “crushing” its new jobs goals.
The chamber said Charlotte landed 7,208 new jobs this year, compared with the chamber’s goal of 5,100, and $728 million in new capital investment, compared with a goal of $415 million.
“We’ve had an energized year,” Carter said, noting the chamber’s “Power Up” theme for 2013.
Chamber President Bob Morgan said 77 percent of the year’s job growth had come from existing companies. A representative from Publix, the Florida-based grocery chain that is rapidly expanding in Charlotte, told the crowd gathered at the NASCAR Hall of Fame to expect more Publix stores and jobs in 2014.
“With intense competition, the real winner in Charlotte is going to be the Charlotte grocery customer,” said Publix’s Chuck Roskovich, “you and your neighbors.”
Awards for area leaders
The night also included awards for Charlotte business leaders. Former Nucor Steel CEO Dan DiMicco won the chamber’s Citizen of the Carolinas award. The Belk Innovation in Diversity Award went to the Moore & Van Allen law firm and UNC Charlotte.
Former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl presented David Darnell, the bank’s current co-chief operating officer, with a special Diversity Champion Award for his work with the Charlotte Minority Economic Development Initiative, a group that puts minority-owned businesses in relationships with major corporations.
Carter passed the chairman’s gavel to Carolinas Healthcare System CEO Michael Tarwater, who said “Healthy Charlotte” will be the chamber’s theme for 2014. He said the theme embraces not just physical health, but the community’s overall vibrancy, including jobs, education, clean air and energy.
One study, he said, found Charlotte ranked toward the bottom of a list of healthiest communities.
“Among the many accolades we’ve received, (healthiness) isn’t one of them,” he said. “I think Charlotte can do better. … A healthy Charlotte will continue to attract new companies and new jobs.”
Frazier: 704-358-5145; @ericfraz on Twitter
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