CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When voters elect a new Charlotte mayor this fall, they will be handing him or her a long list of tough questions to confront.
How do you build consensus in an increasingly diverse community that tends to segregate by race and income?
How do you keep adding jobs and expanding the tax base now that the city’s borders have swallowed most of Mecklenburg County?
And how do you do all of this at a time when the city’s leaders face distrust from local business elites, resentment from the suburbs and opposition from a state legislature controlled by suburban and rural lawmakers?
“Right now, it doesn’t look good,” said Bill McCoy, former director of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute. “Where’s the vision for Charlotte? Who’s going to lead the way?”
In recent decades, that job has fallen to the mayor, even though Charlotte’s manager-council form of government gives formal power to the city manager and City Council.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Eddie Knox and Harvey Gantt helped the city revitalize its uptown, build the Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road, and expand Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Sue Myrick took the city into the 1990s by upgrading roads and leading a public-private effort to build a homeless shelter.
Richard Vinroot launched a long-term transportation plan, and Pat McCrory brought it to fruition by opening the Lynx light rail line.
And Mayor Anthony Foxx’s determination – and close ties to President Barack Obama – helped bring the Democratic National Convention and the international spotlight to Charlotte last year.
“All of them were important,” former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl said of the mayors. “That’s leadership we’re talking about – not authority, but leadership.”
Now Foxx is in line to be the next U.S. secretary of transportation, with a Senate confirmation hearing slated for Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the past mayors of Charlotte – McCrory, Vinroot, Myrick, Gantt and Knox – will gather to give their thoughts on the city’s future during a public forum at Central Piedmont Community College. Foxx, who will be in Washington for his confirmation hearing, has said he hopes to join the conversation by video.
The city sorely needs a visionary leader to succeed him, many observers say.
In interviews over the past two weeks, McColl and other key civic, government and business leaders questioned whether the old way Charlotte got things done – with select business and political leaders linking hands – is falling apart. They cite political constituencies that are rapidly fragmenting and corporations more worried about trade in China than traffic in Cotswold.
Some see signs of the breakdown in the fights over control of the airport, rising tensions between city leaders and suburban lawmakers, and squabbles over extending a streetcar line to east and west Charlotte.
The city’s long-term economic health hinges on getting it fixed.
The recession’s over. The real estate market is recovering. Unemployment’s inching down. And the international exposure from the DNC has positioned the city to land bigger business investments and more signature events.
But civic leaders suggest that potential could go unrealized without real leadership to bridge the emerging divide.
“Charlotte works and sells well in part because people from outside look at Charlotte and say, ‘That’s a place that knows how to get things done. You’ve got Democrats and Republicans, but you rally around and try to find a way,’ ” Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan said.
“That ability, I would argue, is at risk.”
The mayors – especially the earlier ones – could rely on powerful business-community allies like McColl, First Union’s Ed Crutchfield and Duke Energy’s Bill Lee, CEOs whose support could get a bond issue passed or a community need addressed.
Back then, a small roomful of businessmen could – and sometimes did – decide elements of the city’s future.
But Charlotte’s a different place now. The population has exploded, with Census figures last year showing the city added 19,600 people from mid-2010 to mid-2011 alone. That made it the ninth-fastest-growing city in the country, with 751,087 residents.
An increasingly diverse city
Diversity’s on the rise. Charlotte’s non-Hispanic white population dipped under 50 percent in the 2010 Census; it was 55 percent in 2000.
Some observers say it’s getting harder to build consensus in today’s more open, increasingly complex Charlotte.
Residents in Ballantyne and other south suburban areas feel so alienated they’ve even talked of seceding from Charlotte.
“That would really hurt the fiber of the city and its ability to raise money,” Knox said.
Last year, a $926 million capital improvement plan that would have built roads, sidewalks and bridges failed to win passage after some City Council members objected to including the streetcar.
“It would be hard to see how mayors in the past would have lost that, especially when your party has a 9-2 majority on City Council,” said McCoy, the former Urban Institute director. “So obviously it is tougher.”
The vote drew notice from business leaders, who were stunned that one issue could torpedo a plan designed to address needs across the city.
Fearing the impact such political infighting could have on the airport, they pushed behind the scenes for legislation transferring Charlotte Douglas from the city’s control to a regional authority. A bill has passed the N.C. Senate and is being discussed in the House.
The streetcar fight also drew notice in east and west Charlotte, blue-collar areas where neighborhood leaders have felt neglected compared to more affluent sections.
They’ve seen how the Lynx light rail line sparked a resurgence in South End, and they question why the rescue plan for their area – the streetcar – was shot down.
(City Manager Ron Carlee recently proposed a new plan to build a streetcar project he called the CityLynx Gold Line. A consultant hired by the city has said it could spark 1.1 million square feet of new development by 2035, and up to $2.4 million in new property taxes.)
Charlotte can’t become a great city if its eastern and western sides don’t get help, said Aaron McKeithan, head of the Historic West End Neighborhood Association, a group that includes 16 westside neighborhood association presidents.
“I equate it to an apple. No matter how pretty the apple is, if the core deteriorates, the whole apple will deteriorate.”
The limits of annexation
The tensions come at a time when the city has already annexed most of the available land in Mecklenburg County. Many say it will be pressed to find new ways to grow its tax base through infill development.
Business and government leaders, pointing to the high-density development the light rail line has spurred in South End, say the continued build-out of the city’s transit plan is perhaps the key challenge facing the next mayor.
“It will shape where we need our schools, our parks,” said Michael Smith, head of Center City Partners. “That’s the work of the next 50 years.”
However, a task force has estimated that the Charlotte Area Transit System needs $3.3 billion to build out its transit corridors. It suggested an additional half-cent sales tax for transit.
That could be a tough sell in the current environment.
Morgan, the Charlotte Chamber president, pointed to “dysfunction at every level of government,” from bickering Congress members to the recent firing of former County Manager Harry Jones to City Council members calling each other names.
“It’s in some cases political, partisan. I would argue in some cases, it’s personal. In some cases it’s good honest policy differences that have to be dealt with.”
McCrory, elected governor after 14 years as mayor, said the next mayor needs the personal touch. “The leadership all across Charlotte has to spend time talking to each other.”
Added Myrick: “Building consensus is a must.”
Vinroot recalled that in decades past, the city had clear-cut business leaders like McColl and Crutchfield, who took a keen interest in the city’s growth and worked with mayors to push important civic projects through.
Now, he said, such leaders are less obvious. And he questioned whether city leaders are doing enough to “re-engineer” such ties for the modern era.
“I don’t know that there’s a healthy relationship right now between business and government,” Vinroot said. “I used to brag to mayors in other cities about the positive relationship between business and government, and they would look at me like I was from a foreign country. I worry that maybe we’re now that foreign country too.”
Asked if he sees fraying relations between city hall and the business sector, McColl praised Foxx’s partnership with Duke Energy leader Jim Rogers in bringing the DNC to town last year.
He added: “The business community and the black community worked hand in glove in getting things done for our community (in the past). And if there’s any area where I think we could stand some improvement, I think that maybe could be it.”
Foxx, in a statement emailed to the Observer, said the business community has an important voice. He added that elected officials have “a louder and more diverse community” to represent.
“In a time of rapid change, how we work together is changing,” he said in the statement. “Increasingly, there seems to be a belief that these voices are at odds – ultimately, they aren’t. All of us want good neighborhoods and economic growth. ... It is not winners versus losers; it’s creating win-win scenarios.”
Time for a full-time mayor?
Morgan said that given the larger size of corporations in Charlotte today, CEOs are much more preoccupied with national and international problems than their predecessors, and have less time to focus on Charlotte’s issues.
Maybe, Morgan said, the mayor needs to take a stronger role.
“Have we reached the point where we need a full-time mayor?” he asked. “I think that’s a big question mark to be dealt with.”
But Gantt and Vinroot said they prefer the current system.
“I kind of like the notion that the mayor or any elected official has to go out there and work in the economy, just like any other citizen,” Gantt said.
Former City Manager Pam Syfert, who spent 35 years in Charlotte city government, said mayors have always been key to putting a civic need on the public’s radar. When a bond issue to build a new airport terminal failed in the 1970s, Mayor John Belk rallied city leaders to come back and get it done, she said.
She saw the same pattern with other major projects over the years.
“It’s been one of the secrets to Charlotte’s success, that we go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to make it work. … The politics seem to have changed a little bit. It seems to have gotten a little less cooperative, but I’m cautiously optimistic.
“We’ll find a way to work through it.”