Lately, it feels as though Charlotte is experiencing a mid-life crisis. There’s a malaise creeping across the city as people brace for more of the same. Behind the scenes, people whisper about Amazon HQ2. The shock and embarrassment of not making the company’s top 20 is uncomfortably similar to being ranked last for economic opportunity.
We’re questioning who we are now. What does this mean for the future of the city? Have we lost our status as the darling of Southeast cities? Did we ever really have it? Worse, the things we used to love, like dreaming of a new stadium (the economic development equivalent of a red Corvette) no longer have the same appeal because, well, we know better now.
Like other mid-life crises, we’re slowly coming to grips with the realization that who we were 20 or 30 years ago, with different dreams and aspirations, might not be who we are today. Our most cherished possessions – the Carolina Panthers, our status as a financial center, and our history as a leader in public education – might be slipping away. Equally difficult to comprehend is the reality that the world is very different now, but our business leaders are not.
We shouldn’t waste this opportunity for introspection and reinvention. The last bold vision for Charlotte is from the 1980s when our business leaders set out to be a “world-class city.” We dreamed of major events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics. We built stunning skyscrapers and pursued corporate headquarter relocations. In part, we succeeded in creating a good city for middle-class families with steady corporate jobs. But, we left too many behind.
The workforce and consumers of today expect different things from businesses (darn millennials!). Political correctness has given way to political authenticity – diversity in an ad campaign is necessary, but insufficient; diversity in board leadership and corporate management is expected. Women in the workplace are less interested in work-life balance than redefining how we work. Things like paid parental leave, flexible work arrangements and child care are essential to attracting talent.
Millennials consistently prioritize public education, public transportation, and public spaces when choosing a city, and employers are taking note. Entrepreneurs follow investment, mentors, and proximity to customers willing to take a chance on a startup. Gone are the days where a slick marketing campaign with casual nods to certain demographics is good enough. As the economy improves, the competition for talent will intensify, and we will be held accountable for whether our dollars, opportunities, and actions flow in alignment with our words.
I say we scrap the idea of being a “world-class city” and set our sights on being a decent American city. A decent city where a weekend visit is full of sports, arts and culture, outdoor adventures and culinary experiences. A decent city where we see homelessness and panhandling as a human problem, not a business problem. A decent city where neighborhood development is a collaboration between developers and residents. A decent city where our economic future includes a thriving small business community of local shops, service providers, makers and artists, not just tech startups. A decent city where regardless of family income, everyone can afford a home and have access to quality education, healthy food, public parks and transportation.
The good news is we are well on our way. We can snap out of this mid-life crisis by accepting who we are as a city and building on our strengths, not on our egos.