Outgoing Knight director reflects on Charlotte’s progress

Susan Patterson of the Knight Foundation
Susan Patterson of the Knight Foundation Courtesy of Susan Patterson

Susan Patterson, program director for Charlotte at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, will retire at year’s end, the foundation announced Wednesday. The foundation has spent more than $70 million in Charlotte, and Patterson has overseen its investments here since 2001. Twenty-six communities, including Charlotte, where the Knight brothers owned newspapers are served by the foundation. Patterson joined The Charlotte News two weeks after graduating from the University of Tennessee, later went to The Charlotte Observer and served as the editor and publisher of Knight Ridder’s newspaper in Milledgeville, Ga.

Q. What was Charlotte like when you arrived in 1971?

A: I came to work on the copy desk of The Charlotte News “Women’s Department.” It was before liquor-by-the-drink, so there weren’t many good restaurants. Slug’s was the high end, and then there were fish camps along the Catawba. Charlotte seemed not a city yet. Now it is. There’s so much going on this weekend – a hip-hop convention, the symphony, a Mini Maker Faire in front of Discovery Place. It’s become a city, an exciting place to be.

Q. You’ve overseen millions of dollars in Knight grants in Charlotte in the past 14 years. What are some of the most memorable?

A: There were several with long-term impact. We were early in, before it was called the Carolina Thread Trail, working with land groups to develop a regional network of greenways and trails. It’s one of the great gifts to the region. We helped make it happen. I’m glad Knight has been part of Project LIFT, providing laptops for elementary students. It will be a long time until we know what those projects have meant. I think it has the potential to be a transformative investment. As a fan of the performing arts, I love that the Knight Theater is at the Levine Center for the Arts. What I loved about it was it was about the time Knight Ridder was sold and disappearing. We kept the Knight name here.

Charlotte is big enough but small enough, about the right size to still get things done. We still have community leadership that will rally and decide to get things done.

Susan Patterson

Q. What sets Charlotte apart from other high-growth cities?

A: Charlotte is big enough but small enough, about the right size to still get things done. We still have community leadership that will rally and decide to get things done. That’s a heritage we have to nurture and applaud. It’s one thing to learn the city ranks 50th in social mobility. It’s another for the city leadership to say that we need to do something about that – it’s a systemic problem, and let’s be thoughtful about it. We’re attracting smart, bright young people to this community who aren’t waiting to be invited to make a difference – they’re already making change happen.

Q: What do you think makes a great entrepreneur?

A: First, a bias toward action. They’re not going to study something for 10 years. They’re going going to try something and see if it works. Second, if it doesn’t work, they iterate it, change it. I think entrepreneurs have an idea, and they make it happen. That happens on the nonprofit side as well as the tech and profit side.

Q. What’s next for you?

A: I’m ready to take a little break. I’m looking to spend more time with my husband – we’ve been married about a year. I thought running a small-town newspaper was the best job, but this has been similar. You get to look across the community and see the challenges and possibilities and find the inflection point where you can make a difference. I like being in the middle of things. I can’t imagine getting out of the Charlotte picture.