Seven to Watch: Think long term, says Sustain Charlotte leader

Shannon Binns says he wasn’t looking for a job when he started Sustain Charlotte, the nonprofit group that promotes long-term thinking in the city.

Trained as an industrial engineer, Binns quickly found he wasn’t cut out for cubicle life.

“I definitely see myself as a social entrepreneur,” he said. “I like to think I sort of inherited that from my grandfather,” who started an explosives firm.

In Charlotte, Binns sensed an opportunity in 2010.

The fledgling Sustain Charlotte convened 100 community leaders, crunched data and produced a 20-year vision for the growing city. That vision would guide the group’s work – but Binns felt the city needed a detailed plan.

Now Mecklenburg County, Charlotte and smaller towns and Foundation for the Carolinas are developing the first Livable Communities Plan on quality-of-life goals, as Sustain Charlotte had recommended.

This year, the group created the Transportation Choices Alliance, a coalition of two dozen organizations that promotes walking, biking and public transit.

John Autry, who chairs Charlotte City Council’s environment committee, calls Binns “an important player in this community for how he raises awareness of issues that will be of importance to the city for generations to come.”

‘A crooked path’

Binns’ search for a professional niche took him around the world. “I tell people I followed a crooked path,” the Iowa native said.

He taught English in Prague. In Maryland, service with AmeriCorps exposed him to inner-city schools and homelessness. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, Binns taught villagers to fight encroaching deserts by planting mango and cashew trees. In Seattle, he went door-to-door talking about nuclear waste, then worked for tsunami relief in Thailand after the 2004 disaster.

Graduate school at Columbia University in New York, studying environmental science and policy, left him at a low point – 30, jobless, without the wife and children he’d imagined by then. Seeking the comfort of family, he came to Charlotte in 2007 to crash on his sister’s couch.

Binns worked for Green Press Initiative, a nonprofit that encourages bookmakers and newspapers to use environmentally friendly papers, through 2012.

An Observer article on Charlotte’s dwindling tree canopy, meanwhile, had focused his attention on his new backyard. Sustain Charlotte, modeled on a similar initiative in Atlanta, was born.

“We’re trying to change peoples’ mindsets about how we grow,” he said.

Poor report card for city

Binns became the group’s full-time executive director in January 2013. A year later, it added education and outreach director Meg Fencil and, this month, hired communications and development director Shannon McKnight. The group also leased its first office space in December.

The group gets about half its revenue from grants and the rest from contract work, individual donors, business partnership programs and an annual awards event.

Sustainability, it turns out, is a sensitive word among people who see it as code for increased government control over daily life.

Sustain Charlotte’s report card this year on local trends didn’t go down easily for Republican county commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, who lashed out at “social engineering” after an October presentation.

“It all sounds good and feels good,” Ridenhour said, “but to get us there it would take people’s property rights and personal rights.”

Charlotte didn’t score well on the report card.

It found improvement locally on issues such as energy use, air quality and transportation. Trends for food, such as the rising number of households receiving nutrition aid, and sprawling land use were assigned D grades. Comparisons to national averages got Cs or Ds on seven of nine dimensions.

“We’re not making progress on a lot of issues, and we’re losing ground on a lot of issues,” Binns said. “Nobody’s asking, how do I maximize my (community) profits 20 years from now?”

Binns also chafes at aspects of the Livable Communities Plan, urging that it include quantifiable goals similar to those in his group’s report card.

The plan’s saving grace, Binns said, will be in how it’s put to use. That will take political courage and civic commitment, he said. Sustain Charlotte will be part of the implementation team.