Time for action on CEO group

It seems every time you turn around lately, Charlotte is landing at or near the top of some national list of cities with the hottest economies or real estate development markets.

For confirmation, you need only glance at the falling unemployment rate or any of the new apartments or hotels under construction around town. Charlotte’s economy, battered by the recession and the banking crisis, is clearly shifting into a higher gear.

So it was perhaps understandable that a celebratory mood hung in the air Tuesday night as the Charlotte Chamber held its annual meeting at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Carolinas HealthCare System CEO Michael Tarwater, the chamber’s 2014 chairman, noted the 5,518 new jobs announced in Charlotte in 2014, and some $528 million in capital investment.

He said the numbers suggest Charlotte’s coming out of the sluggish recovery period that followed the recession. Still, something else Tom Skains, the chamber’s 2015 chair, mentioned during the meeting also caught our attention.

“This is not necessarily a chamber initiative,” said Skains, CEO of Piedmont Natural Gas, “but Michael Tarwater and I, and others in this room, have interest in helping facilitate the creation of a CEO council that could encourage greater engagement by local CEOs in our community to address the major issues facing our city.”

It’s an idea that began circulating during the chamber’s fact-finding trip this past summer to Minneapolis, where business leaders heard about the Itasca Project, a CEO-driven group of 50-plus Twin Cities leaders who meet four or five times annually to craft plans for improving life in the region.

Local business and political leaders on the trip immediately began clamoring for such a group here. Frustrated by the ugly political brawls over Charlotte Douglas International Airport and the city’s planned extension of the east-west streetcar, many waxed nostalgic for the bygone era when a small, secretive group of powerful CEOs essentially settled such thorny civic questions over breakfast.

No one wants that kind of secrecy or lack of diversity in today’s civic leadership groups. And it doesn’t have to be that way. The Itasca group meets openly, and hosts a website. There’s no reason Charlotte’s version of such a group couldn’t be structured to include the voices of female CEOs and those from minority-oriented civic organizations.

Such a group could be useful in helping heal the fissures opened by the fights over the airport, streetcar and other issues. It might even prevent them from developing.

At the very least, such a group could draw the attention of some of our most powerful CEOs – many of whom no longer live here – back to Charlotte’s civic needs.

So far, all we’ve heard from local leaders on this is talk. In 2015, they need to make this group happen.