Letting our hair down – and other Charlotte lessons from Miami

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio (center) tours the Wynwood Walls public art area in the Wynwood section of Miami.
Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio (center) tours the Wynwood Walls public art area in the Wynwood section of Miami.

At first glance, Charlotte and palm-tree lined, sun-drenched, beachfront Miami might not seem to have a lot in common.

But they share some characteristics. Like Charlotte, Miami is a fast-growing city that’s reinvented itself numerous times, with a changing identity that’s been influenced by waves of newcomers. And like Charlotte, the people who grew up in Miami often feel like a minority – our tour guide at one point introduced himself as “one of the few natives,” a phrase familiar to any Charlottean.

A delegation of almost 120 local business and political leaders from Charlotte visited Miami this week for the Charlotte Chamber’s annual three-day intercity visit. Each participating organization, including local governments, paid attendees’ tab (Elected officials, including Mayor Jennifer Roberts and Mecklenburg County Commission Chairman Trevor Fuller, received a discounted rate of $1,975).

They Charlotte group toured diverse neighborhoods, talked to Miami leaders and poked around the Port of Miami.

Attendees also got a slice of the good life, Miami-style. Charlotte businessman and trip co-chair Felix Sabates brought his yacht “Victory Lane” for the delegation to tour in the Caribbean sunset.

We need to unbutton our shirts and get a little funky.

Michael Andrews, Arts & Science Council.

Here are four takeaways from the trip:

1. An arts district won’t happen on its own.

There’s a good deal of angst in Charlotte these days about the city’s apartment boom changing neighborhoods like South End and NoDa, with local businesses being pushed out and a new wave of upscale renters moving in.

So where will the new funk come from? Miami’s Wynwood arts district shows it’s not simply a process of turning artists loose on an older neighborhood and letting nature take its course.

Wynwood, a neighborhood near Miami’s downtown where old factories have been covered in huge splashes of colorful murals and turned into art galleries, required investments on the public and private side.

“There’s really nothing inherently interesting about what’s here,” said Joe Furst, manager of Goldman Properties. Tony Goldman, who also revitalized parts of SoHo and Miami Beach, started buying land in the former textile and industrial area in 2005. The company now runs Wynwood Walls, where dozens of huge murals spice up the old walls and draw thousands of tourists – and investors. Businesses pay to fly in artists to decorate the coveted walls, which provide major exposure.

In addition to private investment, the redevelopment has required Miami to rezone properties for mixed-use development. And it required the city to turn a benevolent blind eye to the murals, which were technically graffiti and not allowed under local regulations when they started.

2. Charlotte’s struggles with tolls, traffic aren’t unique

“Public enemy No. 1,” “a silent killer,” “toll-happy” and the kind of bad mood that “When you get home, you kick the dog.”

Those were all ways Esteban Bovo, vice chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, described people’s feelings about MDX, the county’s relatively new tolling agency. He said people in Miami are fed up with new toll roads and “Lexus lanes” with tolls being added to existing roads.

Sound familiar?

Bovo said one reason people are angry about MDX putting new tolls on roads is that many people didn’t realize they were coming until it was too late to change – another similarity to Charlotte’s Interstate 77 project.

“Where I think we failed is the residents of Miami-Dade County didn’t have a say in MDX,” said Bovo. “Residents didn’t know, didn’t really feel informed of what’s coming.”

But much like in Charlotte, where efforts to halt the I-77 toll lanes have failed, Bovo said he doesn’t expect the tolls to be repealed.

“It ain’t gonna go away,” he said. And with the state government not funding as many road and transit projects as local politicians believe are needed, they worry about traffic’s impact on the future. Miami is the nation’s eighth-largest metropolitan area, and ranks as its seventh most congested.

“My fear is that for all the cranes we see going up in Miami-Dade County, if people can’t move...if the gridlock becomes something that chokes off growth,” said Bovo, “People will go elsewhere.”

3. Charlotte’s airport is a great asset – but it’s eclipsed in international traffic and heavily dependent on one carrier.

Charlotteans are used to looking at Charlotte Douglas International Airport as the biggest player in the region, its 700 or so daily flights to more than 150 destinations both a major business asset and source of civic pride.

But Charlotte leaders got a little reality check this week talking to Miami International Airport’s aviation director.

Although Charlotte has slightly more passengers overall (44.9 million vs. 44.3 million), Miami International – a major tourist destination and international gateway – has almost 10 times as many international travelers (21.2 million in Miami vs. 2.8 million in Charlotte).

Miami International also handles vastly more lucrative air cargo than Charlotte does (2.17 million tons in Miami vs. 135,085 tons in Charlotte).

And while American Airlines is the primary carrier at both airports (operating more than 90 percent of daily flights at Charlotte and 66 percent at Miami International), Miami is far more diversified. It’s the only airport in the nation served by more than 100 airlines. That’s compared to nine at Charlotte Douglas.

Charlotte Douglas has thrived by keeping fees it charges airlines aggressively low – but the Miami model shows that’s not the only way to go. Miami’s aviation director Emilio Gonzalez explained his philosophy on aggressively luring new carriers. That’s typically a costly proposition for airports, requiring breaks on landing fees and marketing agreements, but it can yield prestigious international routes.

“If I hear of an airline that ordered 20 (Boeing) Dreamliners and they’re not flying here, I’m there,” said Gonzalez. “I’m in their face.”

Charlotte Douglas built its hub on the premise of being the lowest-cost major airport in the nation for airlines to operate. That drew Piedmont, then US Airways and now American to use the airport as an important connecting hub. The airport hasn't gone out and lured other carriers, preferring to work closely with its primary hub airline instead.

4. It might be time to let our hair down

Think “Charlotte” and banks, business suits and ties might come to mind. “Miami” probably summons images of beaches, Cuban food, dancing, maybe even a splashy ’80s TV show featuring pastel suits.

Some officials on the intercity visit said Charlotte should look to relax its “Banktown” image a little.

“Our biggest challenge is trying to overcome, in Charlotte, the desire to be the buttoned-down, suit-and-tie, tidy town,” said Assistant City Manager Debra Campbell. “We’ve got to let our hair down just a little bit.”

She was speaking about the desire to foster more Wynwood-style, eclectic murals in Charlotte. Doing that would require elected officials and bureaucrats exercising less control over how buildings look, and maybe even letting some edgy graffiti murals slide (graffiti artists tend not to be known for their sense of decorum, after all).

As Michael Andrews of Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council put it: “We need to unbutton our shirts and get a little funky.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

Related stories from Charlotte Observer