University City

Urban Institute helps steer the region

When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board realized they were at the beginning of a long road toward finding a superintendent to replace outgoing Peter Gorman, they turned to the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute for help.

In its 42-year history, the institute has often been the go-to source for nonprofits, local government and the private sector to find the information they need before making big decisions.

In the school board's case, they wanted to know which traits and qualifications the community is looking for in its next superintendent.

This month the institute will help find the answers when it launches a series of online surveys for teachers, parents and residents to voice their opinions on the topic.

Founded in 1969 as a research and community-outreach center aimed at addressing social, economic and environmental issues in the 14-county region, the Urban Institute's mission has never faltered, even if its focus has often changed.

From surveys on interracial trust to studies analyzing the effects of closing textile mills on small towns, from business confidence statistics in Charlotte to an extensive report on the way the economic impact of the motorsports industry is magnified in North Carolina, it has examined topics as far and wide as the region.

"At any given time it seems like we have anywhere from 15 to 20 projects going," said Jeff Michael, director of the institute since 2003.

Nonprofits and local government make up most of the organizations that use the institute's resources.

"If you're a nonprofit or a government, it's not enough to be out there casting around. You need a plan," said Bill McCoy, who was director of the institute from 1985 to 2001.

"You've got limited resources. You need to have an idea of what you're going to do with them. It is essentially a way that decision-makers can find information that will help them make decisions."

McCoy, who has maintained an office at the institute since retiring as director, just authored a study in June that the United Way of Central Carolinas requested.

The United Way was still working to reinvent itself after the controversy over the million-dollar pay package of its former CEO, Gloria Pace King, and faced that daunting task in the middle of a recession. So its leaders enlisted the institute to help assess the best way to use resources.

The institute sees a rising number of agencies like the United Way turning to it for data essential to their strategic planning.

That wasn't always the case, said McCoy. "There is a whole different way of reaching decisions today versus 30 years ago," he said. "People start out today talking 'What's the data? What's the information?' A few years back it was, 'What's our gut telling us?' "

McCoy said local government leaders in particular weren't interested in listening until a major shift in the personality of the region occurred.

"Counties were changing from manufacturing, mills, to ... they didn't know what," he said. "It was that change in these communities that led to the strategic planning process, which we were involved in. We were trying to help them figure out what they were going to be now."

The UNCC Urban Institute has grown and adapted to the times as well.

More than ever, the institute draws from a larger pool of experts as an increasing number of Ph.D programs on campus bring more graduate students and professors.

"There was already an incredible wealth of talent that we were tapping into, but now there's so much more," said Michael.

The institute has kept up with the times as to how to deliver the message.

After an overhaul completed in the past year, its website allows detailed information from all 14 counties in the Charlotte region to be viewed at the click of a mouse.

"We truly believe our original mission - being a resource for our community and the region - is as relevant today as it ever was. I don't think that's going to go away," said Michael.

"Universities are uniquely positioned to provide research people who are on different sides of an issue, and (whom) people can feel like they can trust as unbiased."