Business Columns & Blogs

June 27, 2014

Wanted: CEOs at the Queen City’s civic decision-making table

Some are calling for business leaders to take a stronger role in solving Charlotte’s problems.

During the Charlotte Chamber’s recent three-day trip to Minneapolis-St. Paul, the delegation of about 130 business and civic leaders listened as an array of speakers probed a variety of challenges facing the Queen City.

But one speech seemed especially resonant. And it could spark changes in the way tough decisions get hashed out here.

U.S. Bancorp CEO Richard Davis got a standing ovation after his talk on civic and corporate community leadership. Attendees afterward called it one of the most inspiring speeches they’d ever heard on the subject.

Davis told the group about the Itasca Project, a group of 50-plus Twin Cities leaders, primarily CEOs, who meet four or five times annually to craft plans for improving the region’s economic vitality and quality of life.

The group has launched CEO-led task forces that have tackled everything from transit funding shortfalls to higher education challenges to closing the region’s socioeconomic gaps.

The participants commit to take part in the group not for a year, or the duration of a task force, but for 10 years.

“That was kind of an ‘aha’” moment, said Charlotte Chamber CEO Bob Morgan. “There’s been a lot of conversation in Charlotte about how to engage CEOs who are very busy people, oftentimes focused on business footprints much larger than Charlotte.

“There was a lot of interest in the Minneapolis model. I think it’s too soon to say that’s what will result. But there’s now a conversation that’s taking place.”

The Itasca Project reminds some of The Group, the near-legendary gathering of Charlotte CEOs from a generation or so ago who met informally and hashed out solutions to the city’s problems.

It included some of Charlotte’s biggest names: bank CEOs Hugh McColl and Ed Crutchfield, Duke Energy’s Bill Lee, department store magnate and former Mayor John Belk.

They had no bylaws, no goals, no staff, and didn’t keep minutes. If a CEO couldn’t make it, he sent no substitute.

It certainly wouldn’t meet today’s standards for inclusiveness, or openness. But it ensured that whenever the city confronted a prickly local problem, its most powerful citizens had a forum to talk it over. And while the group never took any formal positions or sponsored any task forces, it put the folks with needle-moving clout on the same page.

Several political leaders on the trip told me after Davis’ speech that some modern-day incarnation of The Group, or a Charlotte-style Itasca Project, is sorely needed to help deal with our thorniest challenges.

That would include the most obvious one: the soap opera that is the power struggle over Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Or even the fights over the still-incomplete east-west trolley line.

City Council member David Howard told me he was struck by the fact that the Itasca Project’s members meet openly. They even have a website. Minneapolis-St. Paul leaders brag publicly about the project’s efforts.

Charlotte’s legendary gathering – Howard remembered it as the “Queen’s Table” group – met privately, prompting criticism about the fairness of a small group of “powerful white men” deciding the region’s future behind closed doors.

While a range of voices need to be heard in today’s ever more diverse Charlotte, Howard said the city also needs a strong, unified voice from CEOs.

He doesn’t see it as an either-or proposition.

“You need both,” Howard said. “That was one of the strongest things we heard (in Minneapolis). I would hope we see some movement on that.”

Imagine what would happen if the CEOs of the 10 largest companies in Charlotte – Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Duke Energy and the rest – pulled city officials and legislative leaders into a room, then outlined a reasonable compromise to end the airport impasse.

Or a solution to any other problem facing the region, for that matter.

Could that really happen here?

“It’s got to happen,” Howard said. “We don’t have a choice.”

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

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