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Who We Are

by Winn Maddrey

October 6,2007

Increasingly, it seems, when I ask people where they live, I am greeted with an unexpected response. Their response is neighborhood first – Ballantyne, Elizabeth, Dilworth, Belmont, Sedgefield, Highland Creek, etc. – as opposed to Charlotte, Mecklenburg or other jurisdiction. This struck me as odd and made me wonder if the area’s recent, explosive growth has caused people to identify locally?

When I hear of debate on some of our pressing issues, namely school bonds, transit tax, infrastructure needs, these seem to occupy a provincial approach – the bonds are for inner city, they’re for suburbs, the transit line is for South Boulevard, the line is for the University area and so forth – rather than building blocks for the region. Rarely is the opinion broader, one for all and all for one, to paraphrase.

If one looks back at the 2001 arena vote and the 2005 school bonds, both of which failed to pass, (of course the previous statement has a point of view; some think they did.) there are some interesting lessons. In 2001, the pro-arena side spent an estimated $925,000+ to garner 43% of the vote, while the anti-arena side spent an estimated $18,000 to garner 57% of the vote. Regardless of the cost per vote numbers, the anti-arena group labeled the initiative a “downtown cause” and floated the idea that it would raise taxes.

Flash forward to 2005. The pro-school bonds group spent an estimated $325,000+ to garner 43% of the vote while the anti-school bonds side spent about $8,000 for 57% of the vote. The anti-school bonds effort painted the vote as one that put too many dollars in inner city schools and did not contribute enough to suburban growth needs. Ironically, the inner city vote and the suburban votes joined forces to defeat the school bonds, while the middle ring was more supportive.

But then I think back to our heritage and realize that Charlotte sprouted as the result of two trading paths converging at what is the Square, now the intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets. What an apt metaphor for our community. Would the traders from the East have thought that the other three paths were not of benefit to them? Of course not. The idea of community, of coming together and enabling of future growth was predicated upon all of the paths, not any certain one.

And so where does that leave us?

Poised on the verge of continued growth, yet challenged by the fissures that seem to pop up more and more often? As civic engagement goes, how do we bridge the gap between personal interests, neighborhood interests and those for the broader community? Ideally, they are all in alignment, but our governing process rarely allows for such luxuries. Often, many camps are at odds on issues that were dropped in their laps. Rarer still are those engaged to make ours a better community for all.

How does our community dialogue, or lack thereof, enable us to tackle these issues better in the future? How do we work closer together, across our differences, to make tough community decisions that hopefully have even the dissenters agreeing to support? How do we encourage our citizens to (a) have an opinion, (b) express it, and (c) ensure that there will be willing ears?

I do not mean to imply that we are a divided city, some of a certain agenda and those of another; rather to suggest that as we grow as a community, we are going to have tougher and tougher issues to address. And, with the current state, I believe we are not doing enough to handle the issues that we see today, many of which may pale in comparison to future issues. Plus we have enjoyed a history of abundance; we are discussing growth, not contraction, and with growth comes opportunity. And challenge.

I think that this fall, and in future years, the public referenda, especially the school bonds and the transit tax, give our community the chance to come together and view ourselves as one. That is one Charlotte, one Mecklenburg, and each a member of our respective neighborhoods and, combined, as part of a whole.

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