Progress noted in and around Charlotte
CHARLOTTE -- Newspaper columnist Neal Peirce couldn't find a good restaurant in uptown 12 years ago when interviewing local leaders about the region and its future.
"It was an area of lonely concrete streets," the syndicated columnist remembered Tuesday. "I'm surprised by the sheer immensity of the development."
Looking back, Peirce also remembered a region with a patchwork transportation system and too many low-skilled workers. He remembered a community still looking to business giants, such as Bank of America's Hugh McColl Jr., for civic leadership. He saw scattered development moving away from central city and threatening sprawl.
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The columnist, along with partner Curtis Johnson, were invited in 1995 by the Observer and several nonprofits to look under the Charlotte region's hood. They were considered experts on regional growth and urban revitalization and run The Citistates Group, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. The Observer published the findings in four Sunday installments in the fall of 1995.
The two returned Tuesday to give a talk at a forum at UNC Charlotte about regional cooperation and again to discuss what's going right and what's going wrong. The talk coincided with the release of a new set of regional indicators developed by the university's Urban Institute and meant to gauge quality of life and economic development when compared to other regions.
On this visit, Peirce and Johnson marveled at the now-bustling uptown business district, the scads of restaurants, and the region's vast and organized transit system. They said the Charlotte region was ahead of most in embracing downtown and mixed-use development -- building communities closer to where people work and shop and closer to present and planned mass transit. The idea is for people to drive less to cut down on pollution and traffic.
"That was pretty strange talk 10 years ago," Peirce said. "There's a real change in attitude."
They and other speakers at the five-hour forum stressed the need for more regional cooperation and for leaders to be "audacious" in solving problems, such as stepping up construction of the region's light-rail system to cut down on pollution and to guard against a global oil crisis, Johnson said.
Big challenges ahead
Mayor Pat McCrory, who spoke at the five-hour forum, said that solving the problems requires local leaders not to "get into their political shells."
He said economic development and environmental issues and immigration are among the Charlotte region's biggest challenges. They do not know political, county or state boundaries, he said.
Differences in state-level tax incentives to recruit businesses that end up pitting North Carolina and South Carolina counties in the same region against each other need to disappear, McCrory said. Also, he said the region is too susceptible to the ripples of corporate decision making, such as US Airways' recent attempt to merge with Delta Air Lines and possibly move the Charlotte hub to Atlanta.
"The way you battle that is to persuade corporations to increase their investment so it becomes too expensive for them to leave," he said.
McCrory said that he and other elected leaders have to be willing to make decisions that might be unpopular in the short run, such as when leaders decided to expand the airport a quarter century ago, he said. "If we hadn't done that, we'd be a different city today."
Johnson and Peirce said that Charlotte region was riding a high of employment and growth but that dark clouds threaten: The region struggles with a higher-than-average high school dropout rate, increasing traffic, a stressed water supply and other growing pains.
And Peirce said that Charlotte depends too much on skilled labor imported from other regions.