Sometimes it takes a big moment – a big decision – to offer a clearer window into people and institutions. Sometimes, a small moment does the job just fine.
So it was Monday, when the Charlotte City Council faced a vote on how to pay for a new building that would link Bojangles’ Coliseum with Ovens Auditorium.
The project itself isn’t controversial. It would cost $18.5 million – not a tiny number – but it would enhance the two facilities and help further to revitalize a struggling community. As the Observer’s Steve Harrison reported, the $18.5 million was slated to come from the city’s $900 million capital improvement program, which funds roads, housing and other infrastructure so critical to our city.
But council member Ed Driggs, a Republican who represents District 7, had a different idea: Why not take pay for the project with hotel/motel tax revenue that state law says must be used for tourism purposes. Ovens and Bojangles are both tourism facilities, after all, and that would free up $18.5 million for something else.
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That “something else” is important. Last fall, after the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and subsequent protests, the City Council promised Charlotte in a “Letter to the Community” that it would work on issues such as affordable housing and job opportunities.
Driggs’ proposal, if passed, would send a strong message at a time residents have questioned the priorities of city and county officials regarding a proposed MLS soccer stadium. It was, quite simply, good policy and good politics.
And that’s where things got revealing.
Driggs was supported by three other council members, including Democrats Julie Eiselt and LaWana Mayfield, who were unafraid to side with a Republican if it meant doing something good that also kept a promise they’d made.
But fellow Democrat Vi Lyles, who wants to lead Charlotte as its next mayor, went with her go-to response when faced with potentially touchy issues or decisions. The city, she said, “could have a conversation” about paying for the project in a different way. (Later, after facing criticism for her no vote, she accused Driggs of playing politics while pointing the finger at him for not supporting an affordable housing project in his district in 2014.)
As for current Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who frequently trumpets herself as an affordable housing advocate? She had an opportunity Monday to be a persuasive voice for a plan that could offer substantial help, but chose not to.
Driggs’ plan failed, 5-4.
A note: Charlotte already has a Housing Trust Fund with money available to address some needs. But, as Driggs rightly noted, the $18.5M discussed Monday could have been earmarked to start a new program that offered rent subsidies to low-income workers in Charlotte.
Also, using hotel/motel tax revenue for the Ovens-Bojangles connector would not have doomed city funding for an MLS stadium. But it would have forced city officials to focus their priorities a little more sharply.
In a way, that what Driggs’ plan did, anyway. It showed Charlotte that its City Council can be bold when things are theoretical, but not so much when they have an opportunity to make good on their words. It also showed how good ideas too often get snuffed out by self-interest, by paralysis and, yes, by politics. It was revealing, but sadly not much of a revelation.