Business

Here’s what Charlotte’s biggest developer thinks about the city’s boom – and Trump

Johnny Harris is bullish on Charlotte and its future

Harris, the 2017 Citizen of the Carolinas, says jobs, a medical school, light rail and the airport are all important for continued growth and success.
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Harris, the 2017 Citizen of the Carolinas, says jobs, a medical school, light rail and the airport are all important for continued growth and success.

Johnny Harris’s career spans decades of the city’s growth, but the self-proclaimed “old dog” isn’t done building.

Harris, CEO of Lincoln Harris, doesn’t plan to retire from the firm that bears his name, or throttle down on his efforts to bring more national golf events to Charlotte and Quail Hollow Club, where he is president.

“Sometimes there’s a place for an old dog in a room,” said Harris, during a recent interview at his wood-paneled office in SouthPark. “I maybe don’t bark like I used to and demand attention the way I used to, but I can sit in the room and watch, and from time to time make a very positive suggestion.”

A glance around Harris’ office shows the commitment he still has to his various projects. Books on skyscrapers and golf course design are stacked up on his table. In a conference room down the hall, a PGA-branded telescope is trained on uptown, where his company’s newest office tower is rising next to Bank of America Stadium.

Harris, 70, is set to receive the 2017 Citizen of the Carolinas award from the Charlotte Chamber next Tuesday. The Chamber is recognizing Harris for bringing the 2017 PGA Championship to Quail Hollow, as well as his decades of involvement in Charlotte’s building booms. The grandson of N.C. Gov. Cameron Morrison, Johnny Harris and his family were instrumental in transforming thousands of acres of family land into SouthPark and Ballantyne.

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Lincoln Harris remains one of the most active developers in Charlotte, with a half-dozen big projects underway. The company is redeveloping the former Charlotte Observer site uptown with a 33-story office tower, the first phase of a new mega-project; building a 180-acre mixed-use development called Rea Farms on Providence Road; and partnering with Crescent Communities to develop the almost 1,400-acre River District west of Charlotte’s airport, the biggest single development since Ballantyne.

During a wide-ranging conversation, Harris shared his thoughts on the city’s future, Quail Hollow Club, the challenges for Charlotte’s leadership, the aftermath of the Keith Lamont Scott shooting last year and why President Donald Trump should stop tweeting.

On how the development process in Charlotte has changed

“In the old days when we first started out, the city was smaller,” Harris said. “It was a town where you knew a lot of the people. No matter where you were trying to do a project, you knew somebody in the neighborhood.”

In a bigger and more diverse city, Harris said it’s harder to build trust with city officials and community members.

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“There used to be a level of trust between the developers and the community. A lot of that is lost,” said Harris. “You don’t go to church with the developer, you don’t see the developer, you don’t know him, you didn’t go to school with him, or your kids didn’t go to school with him.”

On the changes in Charlotte leadership

For decades, Charlotte’s formal leadership was widely understood to be secondary to “The Group,” a loose mix of political leaders like former mayor Harvey Gantt, business leaders like Hugh McColl Jr., and men who blurred the lines, such as mayor and department store CEO John Belk.

“In the old days, everyone was very aware of The Group, and what The Group did,” said Harris. “Now, you have a situation where you have to work harder to communicate to the different factions in the city. It’s become way more contentious than it used to be.”

“It’s easy to say there’s a void in leadership now,” said Harris. “The fact of the matter is, the leadership’s there, but it’s awfully hard to be heard when you’re as diverse and large as Charlotte has become.”

On how Harris has changed over his career

“Mostly my waistline and my weight would be the biggest thing,” Harris quips. Aside from that, he said the major change is relying more on others.

“There was a time when I had absolute confidence in how I approached the problem and how I came up with the answer,” said Harris. “Over time, it became obvious to me, if you could get the input from three or four minds...the answer was better, because five minds are better than one mind.”

On the aftermath of the Scott shooting

Harris said the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer in September 2016 and subsequent unrest have economic roots – a point many of the protesters made afterward. But he rejected the idea that the events were a repudiation of the “Charlotte way” of compromise, collaborative leadership and change without much overt confrontation.

“We have been kind of protected from those kinds of events in the past,” Harris said of the Sept. 2016 street protests that followed the death of Scott, who was African American. “But as we’ve grown and become more diversified, people will go out of their way to take advantage of mistrust and confrontation.”

“You think the police shooting was indicative of people not being at the table?” Harris asked. “There were a lot of aspects about that disorder that were not a Charlotte way. But they’re also not an Atlanta way, not a D.C. way, not any civilized community’s way of doing business. So I feel very strongly that is indicative of a problem we have, but I’m not sure it’s an indictment of what we’ve been able to accomplish in Charlotte.”

He said the focus should be on ensuring people have access to a good education and well-paying jobs.

“I don’t think that the Scott shooting was indicative of an indictment of the Charlotte way of doing business,” said Harris. “I do think that there are people who do not feel as if they’re part of this community either because of their race or because of their economic situation. That is a real problem.”

On his possible retirement

“I have no intentions of retiring,” Harris said. “Don’t even know what that word means.”

On winning the Citizen of the Carolinas award

Harris said he’s extremely honored by the award, but also recalled something former Mayor John Belk told him.

“He said Johnny, if you live long enough, they’ll give you an award,” Harris said.

On future golf tournaments at Quail Hollow

The Wells Fargo Championship is set to run through 2019 at Quail Hollow, but its future after that isn’t clear. Harris said he’s confident that he’ll be able to attract more major tournaments to the club, however.

“While there are two years left on the Wells Fargo, I don’t know whether that will continue or not after two years,” he said. “We have the President’s Cup coming (in 2021), and I would think in the not-too-distant future we’ll have the PGA back.”

On whether Charlotte’s latest boom will continue

“If you look at the number of years we’ve been having a positive run, we’ve got to be past halfway,” said Harris. But he said President Trump’s business-friendly policies will probably boost the economy for a few more years.

“I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, OK, but I think as long as Trump continues to approach government in a way that he is removing certain regulations that are not favorable to business, then we’ll continue to have positive things happen in the economy,” said Harris.

On Trump

They’re both real estate developers in their 70s with a passion for golf and names that have long been synonymous with development in their home cities, but Harris is quick to reject any direct comparison between himself and the president.

“There’s very little parallel between Donald Trump and myself,” said Harris. He said his advice for the president would be to listen to his advisers, move away from the far right to the political center, and put down his phone.

“If I could take his phone away from him, and take his Twitter account away from him, I think this country would be better off,” said Harris. And while he said he’s still shocked Trump is actually president, his election points to dangerous feelings of disenfranchisement among a big section of the U.S.

“I was as shocked as anybody,” he said of Trump’s election. “I could not believe it, and to this day do not understand it. I think there were people who were frustrated who feel like they weren’t involved.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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