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Imagining Charlotte

by Mary Tribble

June 4,2005

Imagination can accomplish surprising things. As our company celebrates its 20th anniversary, we are exploring the concept of imagination. For us, it’s usually about a client’s dream for a milestone celebration, a vision to communicate appreciation to employees, or a concept to roll out a new plan in a meaningful way. The client comes to us with an idea and our staff brings its own brand of imagination to the project. The concept comes into focus, evolves and ultimately culminates in a much better project through a collaborative process.

Through that collaborative process, there are invariably differing opinions—sometimes strongly so. Perhaps I don’t think a client’s idea will work logistically; maybe someone on my staff thinks the creative concept could be better. In some cases, the idea is great but the proposed execution misses the mark.

Usually, though, imagination gets better with a little bit of conflict. It forces us to rethink our position, include others’ suggestions and create a better product in the end.

It occurs to me that this is how great cities work, too.

Imagine a group of rebels gathered at a bar in 1775, drinking up enough courage to declare the county’s independence from England. Imagine a man sitting on a patch of dirt in Concord dreaming of an oval track that would someday attract hundreds of thousands of fans and generate millions of dollars for the region. Imagine a man standing on Trade and Tryon conjuring up a 60-story office tower, innovative cultural facilities and nightlife in uptown Charlotte. Imagine a family dreaming of the roar of a crowd at an NFL game at a state-of-the-art stadium, or a business owner dreaming of a new NBA franchise and uptown arena.

Few of these ideas were without controversy or nay-sayers. Most people think the Mecklenburg Declaration never existed; folks dismissed NASCAR as redneck until they started calculating the economic impact. No one would have believed that the streets of uptown Charlotte would teem with people after hours, but they do. Many thought we were a long shot for the NFL, and the uptown arena controversy was one of the most contentious in recent Charlotte history.

Imagination drives success, but it can also spark controversy. Much of the time, the person with the big idea is the subject of derision or ridicule—or at least a little behind-the-scene jealous whispers. Many times they are challenged. But in the past, at least, Charlotte’s imaginative thinkers have worked through these challenges, created compromise when necessary, and in the end, succeeded in improving our lot.

As Charlotte continues to grow, however, we sometimes indulge in so much zealous confrontation and self-gratifying scorn, that we risk quashing the imaginative spirit that’s brought us so much success. The folks with the good ideas may tire of fighting their way to consensus. Or worse, the ideas could get so watered down in order to please everyone that they result in mediocrity.

I’ve learned in my office that for imagination to win out, you’ve got to create a safe place for it to be nurtured. It’s that way with cities, too.

Here are some things that Charlotte should keep hold of if we’re going to continue to foster imagination:

• Openness. An imaginative city must be open and tolerant to new ideas. And it needs open space—clear patches of undeveloped land where we can be inspired by nature.
• Diversity. The best ideas come from collaboration with people different than you.
• Positive energy. Political bashing, name calling and anger-driven tactics don’t cultivate creative thinking.
• Compassion. An imaginative city takes care of its elderly, its children and those less fortunate, balancing unbridled growth with attention to critical services.

If we want to continue to be a great city, let’s do all we can to encourage imagination.

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