I was given a tough assignment last week. A group of 300 business and civic leaders from Louisville and Lexington, Ky., visited Charlotte to learn about how we have become such a successful city.
After hearing politicians, business leaders and Chamber types tout the city’s selling points, the group asked me to provide an “objectively critical” perspective. That is: We’ve heard a lot about Charlotte’s strengths; now what about the rest of the story?
This wasn’t so easy. As I told the Kentuckians, I love Charlotte and think we’re doing a lot of things right.
Still, I had my marching orders. So I started thinking about Charlotte’s challenges. In almost every case, it was the flip-side of something Charlotte was doing well. A “yes, but” situation.
Here, in summary form, are the six “yes, buts” I talked about with the group from the Bluegrass State:
• Yes, Charlotte has been built on public-private partnerships, but now that approach is under pressure on both sides of the table. On the private side, the leaders of Charlotte’s largest corporations aren’t immersed in the city’s growth like their predecessors. For Hugh McColl, building Bank of America and building Charlotte were inseparable. The same was true for First Union/Wachovia CEO Ed Crutchfield. Today, BofA CEO Brian Moynihan and Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf don’t live in Charlotte, and building this city is far down their to-do lists. Other corporate leaders similarly have a national or even global focus. To be sure, Charlotte’s biggest companies are still involved in civic affairs in myriad ways, but growing the city is not a central part of the mission like it once was.
Things have changed on the public side, too. The quality of the people we elect is spotty, and some elected officials limit their focus to one part of town. And as Charlotte has grown, so has the cacophony of voices and pressures on public officials.
Throw in a bad anecdote or two from recent public-private partnerships and an inability to annex our way to growth, and you have a city where it’s getting harder to make important investments in its future.
• Yes, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is recognized as the best urban school system in the nation, but it still faces immense challenges. A recent city survey found that only 43 percent of respondents gave CMS high marks. Achievement gaps between minorities and whites, low-income and high-income, are large and persistent. This phenomenon helps explain why a recent Harvard study ranked Charlotte dead last among 50 metro regions for income mobility.
• Yes, our uptown has a football stadium, an arena, a baseball stadium and a NASCAR Hall of Fame, but none of that ensures that this city has a soul or a sense of place. In cities like New Orleans, Memphis, San Francisco and Boston, there’s no mistaking where you are. Charlotte’s getting better, but still our idea of preserving history is sticking a marker next to where we tore down a historic building. In that recent city survey, half of respondents gave the city bad scores for its lack of sense of community.
• Yes, we have a thriving arts and culture scene, but the financial model that built it is under tremendous pressure. We have a symphony, opera, ballet, theater, traditional and modern art museums, and on and on, and they are of high quality. But the united arts fund that helps pay the operating costs for those groups was hit hard in the recession and still hasn’t recovered. A task force studying the issue was to release its recommendations at the beginning of the year but still hasn’t. That might speak to just how complicated the environment is they’re trying to address.
• Yes, we have the Lynx light rail line, but it’s geographically limited and we have inadequate money for the massive transit and transportation needs this region will need going forward.
Residents in that survey reserved some of their worst scores for the ease of getting around town and traffic flow. A respected study last year labeled Charlotte the worst big (more than 250,000) city in America for pedestrians (74th out of 74), and we aren’t much better for cyclists.
• Yes, it would appear Charlotte has a lot of sway in the state capital, but this legislature has been consistently anti-city. The governor is our former mayor, and high-powered legislators in both chambers are from Mecklenburg, including the House speaker. That hasn’t stopped the legislature from trying to take away our airport, our ability to regulate billboards or protect trees, a key city tax, and so on.
Charlotte has been on a great run for more than 30 years. The question now is whether we can sustain it. We need public and private leaders who will not rest on the city’s laurels but who will find new solutions in an always changing environment.