Charlotte Chamber’s Minneapolis trip: 5 takeaways

06/23/2014 6:54 PM

06/23/2014 7:22 PM

Last week, about 130 leaders from Charlotte’s business, government, arts and philanthropic sectors traveled to Minneapolis for the Charlotte Chamber’s annual intercity visit.

The goal was to find new solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing our region.

It was a busy trip, packed with panel discussions and speeches on major civic questions including educational equity, paying for transit and encouraging entrepreneurship.

Here are some of my takeaways:

1. Meet the real big spenders. Charlotte taxpayers often feel overtaxed compared with neighbors from surrounding counties. But Charlotte’s got nothing on the blue-state Minneapolis region, which has poured millions into pro sports stadiums and a sophisticated transit system similar to the one Charlotte wants to build – when it finds about $5 billion more.

All of that comes with high taxes and a higher cost of living than Charlotte. Still, Minneapolis’ unemployment sits at about 4 percent, far lower than Charlotte’s, thanks to Fortune 500 firms drawn by the highly educated workforce and strong quality of life.

That’s the “high-cost, high-quality approach,” said Michael Langley, head of the Minneapolis-St. Paul regional economic development partnership.

It seems to work for the Twin Cities. But with the latest tax hike rolling in on high earners, even Langley sounded as if he’d be happy if taxes don’t go up any more.

2. Embrace green-friendly growth. For a city associated with frigid winters and snowstorms, Minneapolis leans heavily on its bikeways and greenway corridors to help spur redevelopment in the urban core – and on its light-rail system, too. I got a definite sense that those who support denser, more pedestrian-friendly development in Charlotte came away feeling validated and more determined than ever.

3. Stand together or fall apart. Twin Cities officials time and again stressed that they couldn’t get big civic projects done without bipartisan and regional cooperation. Citizens fought over light rail for two decades there before a regional group of county leaders and a group of CEOs from major corporations pushed it through. After heated battles over whether to build a new $1 billion football stadium, the state chipped in $348 million.

4. Protect your past. Looking at beautiful old buildings sprinkled throughout Minneapolis’ downtown, it seemed a shame that the Queen City hasn’t preserved more of its architectural past. Many of the Twin Cities’ older buildings had street-level retail stores in them, giving a random walk a sense of the kind of urban adventure you’d get in cities such as New York or San Francisco.

At a time when the younger generation is longing for walkable streets filled with shops and restaurants, uptown Charlotte is hamstrung by the fact that the bank towers that dominate its streetscape weren’t built to include street-level retail space. Uptown leaders are working to change that, but the eclectic vibe you find along some of downtown Minneapolis’ streets suggests much remains to be done.

5. Anticipate your future. U.S. Bancorp CEO Richard Davis earned a standing ovation with a speech in which he urged the Charlotte group to deal with not only today’s challenges and opportunities but to anticipate tomorrow’s as well. Borrowing a sports metaphor from hockey great Wayne Gretzsky, he told the group to approach Charlotte’s challenges like a hockey player who skates not to where the puck has been but to where it is going to be.

“Read the ricochet,” he said.

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