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Positive Energy

by Carroll Gray

July 4,2005

When I arrived in Charlotte in 1984 from Greenville, South Carolina, to serve as president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, Charlotte was looking to be “someone.” It was a young city working to establish its presence, both regionally and nationally, and wanted desperately to become known for something.

If you look at all of the hand-wringing these days about branding our city, you might wonder what has changed. But, in my 20-plus years as Chamber president, I’ll tell you that Charlotte has become that “someone.” While it might not be as glamorous as Hollywood or as sexy as being the city by the bay, Charlotte is known throughout the nation for its ability to implement public-private partnerships to get things done.

Whether it was an elite group of five business leaders locked in a corporate boardroom twenty years ago deciding that Charlotte needed to aggressively recruit the Piedmont Air hub to Charlotte/Douglas Airport, or whether it’s a diverse group of civic, business and government leaders working to solve today’s ozone challenges, Charlotteans have always worked together across political and social lines – to accomplish civic goals.

While it seems second nature for us to work together, the kind of public-private
partnerships we take for granted in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are the same kind that other communities of our size marvel at.

People often ask me about Charlotte’s competitive advantages. While we favorably compare to cities we compete with for economic development projects on things like location, taxes, and cost of living, what really sets Charlotte apart from these communities is its ability to forge partnerships, and its cohesive civic spirit: what we refer to through our economic development campaign as “positive energy.” It’s that positive energy that distinguishes a great city from a good one.

But as Charlotte diversifies, this cohesive civic spirit is beginning to fray, threatening the region’s positive energy and the progress we’ve made. Too many people – even those in our own region, who choose to live, work and play here – are willing to tear down the spirit of our community without offering constructive suggestions on how to make systemic changes to the very items they’re complaining about.

Yes, our city has challenges. Education could be our Achilles’ heel. But we’ve created a public-private partnership to work on those challenges: a private task force that will report back to public officials on recommendations for what could potentially be sweeping change in how our school system is structured.

The environment, particularly ozone and air quality, have us facing an end to federal transportation money if these challenges are not solved post haste. We’ve put together a public-private partnership, called Cutting Pollution When It Counts, that is looking at ways to get businesses to voluntarily commit to changing commuting patterns of their employees on high ozone days. Those alternate commuting plans are turned into the county so that county staff can track whether or not this voluntary program is making
a difference in air quality.

But Charlotte has always been open to new people and new ideas. It’s one of our city’s greatest strengths. There is always room at the table for those with constructive, creative ideas that will help solve our city’s issues.

But these days, there are often vacant seats at those decision-making tables. Instead of pitching in to help, those who criticize and complain the loudest stand back and wait for the Calvary of established leaders to ride in on white horses and fix our city’s problems, only to then criticize the solution we’ve come up with, or the process in which the solution was decided, or the personalities and pedigrees of the people who stepped up to make the decision.

Civic accomplishment is a confluence of leadership, by private individuals as well as elected officials. When you are frustrated with a city issue, it’s easy to stand idly by, Monday morning quarterbacking those who have the courage to take the reins and make decisions. But it takes leadership and civic strength to offer workable solutions to problems. It’s time we did much more of the latter, and less of the former.

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