To see the future, start with the past

Civic navel-gazing and obsession with image are as much a part of Charlotte's culture as stock car racing, bankers in pin stripes and church on Sunday morning.

So when some outside experts in city growth came to town a little more than a decade ago and wrote a big report – published in the Observer and five other regional newspapers – plenty of people here paid attention.

The writers of that report – author Curtis Johnson and syndicated columnist Neal Peirce – are back. Their new Citistates Report, “Green, Great & Global,” debuts Sunday in the Observer and runs monthly through December.

In 1995, the main headline on what was then called the Peirce Report was “Who will lead? And to where?” Excellent question. Even 13 years later, I don't think it has been answered.

The four-part series had dozens of recommendations. They hit three major themes:

Leadership. You can't expect business leaders to run the show any more, the writers said. The old oligarchy – or “The Group” as Charlotte's CEO bigwigs called themselves in the 1980s – isn't what it was. The Peirce Report advised: “Try democracy.”

Growth. “Growth is your biggest problem,” Peirce told an editor. “And no one has come to grips with it.” They found a region in which anti-government and anti-planning sentiment meant growth was being planned, just not by planners. Shopping center and subdivision developers and the politically appointed state highway board made the decisions that shaped the region.

Regionalism. Charlotte is a region, they said, not a city. Everything from transportation to pollution to jobs to leadership should be a regional conversation.

How well has this area dealt with those serious challenges since 1995?

Activist flowering? Um, no

Consider leadership. The flowering of grass roots activism that Peirce and Johnson hoped for hasn't happened. They praised groups such as the Queen City Congress and the Central Carolinas Citizens Forum. Both groups went belly up.

Many civic leaders I talk with these days say they see a growing lack of interest and involvement among more and more residents. They are worried.

Bright spots exist, though. The Lee Institute launched a regional leadership program. Several foundations, including the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Knight Foundation, have invested resources to boost civic engagement. It takes time to see any payoffs from that kind of effort; I predict we will.

‘Ponderous ambivalence'

Curtis Johnson, an author, former chief of staff to a Republican governor and former chair of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro region planning agency, had said in 1995 that he found “ponderous ambivalence” about the role of planning here. “Planning here seems unfocused and fractured,” he said.

I asked him this week if he still saw that ambivalence. He said he did – but he saw great progress, too.

He believes the forces shaping regional growth in the '90s – developers and road-building – “are still formidable. But I don't think they have anything close to a monopoly any more.”

In addition, he said, he and the other writers found in many communities intense interest in taking control of the design of the future. “We see a lot of evidence of more planning going on,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said, interviews throughout the region revealed that, while people “tend to smile when you talk about growth,” there is deep dislike of becoming like Atlanta.

“There remains a deep-seated, maybe incurable ambivalence about becoming a really urban place with lots of people.”

This go-around, Peirce and Johnson examine not just growth, but the region's economic future. I hope you'll be reading.

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