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The DNC: Why Charlotte, Why Now?

by Michael J. Solender

The DNC: Why Charlotte, Why Now?

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Picture by Michael J. Solender

September 3, 2012

As Charlotte plays host to the 2012 Democratic national Convention, people living locally and nationwide are asking: Why Charlotte? and Why now?

A Washington Center Forum hosted by The University of North Carolina at Charlotte last week cut to the core of the political, economic, and personal issues behind the decision making that brought the convention here. Former Charlotte mayors, Democrat Harvey Gantt and Republican Richard Vinroot, were joined by current Charlotte Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob Morgan in a panel facilitated by University Provost Joan Lorden.

The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars provides students with transformational experiences that foster academic and professional achievement, leadership and civic engagement. Since 1984, more than 2,000 students from 400 institutions have participated in the national academic seminars at both parties’ conventions. UNC Charlotte Chancellor Phil Dubois explained that the jointly-sponsored program was part of the University’s 49’r Democracy Experience, a nonpartisan program developed by the University to engage students, faculty, and the community in the election process.

The questions for the most part came from the students and the responses were candid, nonpartisan, and surprisingly insightful as they included a narrative that paid homage to former City Council Member, the late Susan Burgess, former Charlotte mayor John Belk’s crazy notion of a 10,000-foot runway back in the early 80s, and the (failed) attempt to attract the 2,000 Republican National Convention that ultimately went to Philadelphia. The panelists went well beyond boosterism in sharing their perspective on not only what led to the decision, but legacies they anticipate for Charlotte as a result.

Also on display at the evening event was the genuine friendship and warm affection Vinroot (mayor from 1991-95) and Gantt (Charlotte’s first African American mayor, served from 1983-87) have for each other. Despite their political differences the two teamed up earlier this year in joint opposition to Amendment One. They appeared together in a video speaking against the bill that eventually passed. Vinroot also spoke about a letter he wrote to the DNC selection committee advocating Charlotte as choice for the convention (as Gantt had done to the GOP in 2000 for Charlotte’s RNC bid). Vinroot ended up serving on the Charlotte in 2012 host committee, the only Republican with that distinction.

Gantt acknowledged that North Carolina’s narrow margin of victory for President Obama in the 2008 election, he carried the staunchly red state by a mere 14,000 votes, certainly played into the decision to locate the convention in a swing state that would benefit from the up close and personal party boost.

However he went on to say that it wasn’t quite that simple and proceeded to name a number of contributing factors including providing repeated props to the late City Council member and former mayor pro-tem Susan Burgess.

“Susan started a campaign in 2008 that focused on the notion we could accomplish anything,” Gantt said. “She refused to be deterred by naysayers, and there were plenty of them. Yet her tenacity was reminiscent of John Belk’s, who pushed for that extra long runway long before Charlotte was a hub and well before the demand existed. Yet today we are the 6th busiest airport in the world based upon take offs/ landings. She was foresighted and looked to feedback we got when the Republicans lost the bid for 2000 and noted those issues we needed to address – hotel /convention space, public transportation, central downtown arena, cultural offerings and the like. Though she died before her dream was realized, the city owes a great deal to her efforts.”

Vinroot echoed notions of Charlotte being a community of civic, business and community leaders who collaborate and aren’t easily deterred by obstacles. He recalled the pre-Hornets/Bobcats era when a Charlotte group of interested parties went to Phoenix, AZ on a scouting mission for a pending NBA bid. A local sports writer said, “…the only franchise Charlotte could ever hope for was one with golden arches.”

“We just don’t buy that (attitude) In Charlotte,” said Vinroot. “We are as good as we say we are, and that’s not boosterism - we back it up.” He attributed Charlotte’s core city economic vibrancy as a contributing factor to the questions at hand. Vinroot cited statistics showing Charlotte center city per capita income as being a multiple of the surrounding suburbs where as cities such as Detroit and Atlanta (33 % and 45 % per capitas respectively) were merely a fraction of the surrounding environs.

“Healthy core, healthy city,” said Vinroot. “Why not select a shining new south city where we’re working on things that don’t work, whether it’s making the city safer or improving our schools? We are a city with challenges no different than other communities, what is different is how we go about addressing these and actively moving forward in finding solutions.”

Morgan had perhaps the keenest insight into the analysis and cited the “special relationship” between Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx and the President as a contributing factor.

“I’ve accompanied the mayor to Washington, and both he and the city have the attention of the administration,” said Morgan.

He also spoke about lessons from the 2000 bid and in addition to the issues previously mentioned spoke about creating a community that is attractive to young people. “The University played and will continue to play a significant role in attracting business to Charlotte,” said Morgan. “The research that comes with the academic environment creates spin off business which in turn creates jobs which of course are a tremendous economic engine.”

As to legacies left by the convention, each of the panel members pointed to the exposure and international spotlight as only being a good thing for Charlotte.

“We no longer need the NC,” joked Vinroot, “People know we’re not Charleston, S.C. or Charlottesville, Va.

Gantt speculated, as have others, about future possibilities of an Olympics. Atlanta was not unlike Charlotte in 1988 when they hosted their convention (DNC), eight years later they were hosting the Olympics.”

Charlotte looks like much of urban America, a juxtaposition of great promise, aspirations and civic pride all jumbled together with people who want to work that can’t, soaring education and housing costs and transportation challenges. Yet, as the panel concluded, even with our challenges we are working on them in a head on fashion and strong public/private collaboration is one key to moving forward.

More on the power of collaboration tomorrow.

Members of our Charlotte Viewpoint team are at the Democratic National Convention this week, bringing you daily DNC content, CV-style. Did you see our Sunday piece, by Linda Louise Brown, about the Hodges Taylor Gallery’s last show? It’s up during the DNC, through Sept. 14.

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Tags: DNC, democratic national convention, charlotte, vinroot, gantt

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