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People and the Public-Private Partnership

by Hilary Coman

January 7,2008

I am an unabashed fan of the Charlotte region. We’re a bit like the little engine that could. We want professional sports team. We win the franchise. We yearn for more retail, dining and cultural opportunities. Those opportunities arrive – Trader Joe’s, anyone? We imagine living and working in the same spot and mixed use developments across the region fill that needs.

I could go on and on with examples, but I think you get my point. Much of this success is due to a long lasting public-private partnership, government and business working together to reach common community goals. I don’t want to discuss entities, however, but people, because that is who populates the entities that help build our public-private partnership.

Charlotte differentiates itself, in my opinion, because of the way it welcomes newcomers and old-timers alike to get involved in the community. Who your parents are or were is not as important as what you can do and how you can give back to the community. Indeed, there has been an almost unwritten assumption that you would become involved, sitting on non-profit boards, serving on Chamber committees, leading drives for the United Way or the ASC, etc.

This “social contract” as it were has basically provided key building blocks for a successful public-private partnership. In some quarters, particularly the larger corporations, I don’t think this has changed too much. While Bank of America and Wachovia, for example, are much larger banks and have a far greater customer footprint than they did ten or fifteen years ago, both remain engaged and committed to the larger Charlotte community.

However, what about the small business owner who just moved here from Ohio? Or the student who went to UNC Charlotte and decided to stay here and get a job? Or any of the tens of thousands of newcomers streaming into the Charlotte region annually?

Have we as a community helped them to become tethered here to Charlotte? How do we and our organizations make sure that they are involved, that they feel like they are part of the process? If people do not feel like they are part of the process, they will disengage. And, without people, the entities that make up a public-private partnership are worth very little.

It used to be assumed that people would automatically become involved in the community; I don’t think we can make that assumption anymore. Robert Putnam neatly described the problem in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, citing the disappearance of some community organizations because new members are not joining and the old ones are dying off. While I don’t think Charlotte faces as dire a problem as some he described, I do think that some of his points are applicable.

Last month, Mark Peres wrote about the longing for the old oligarchy and the stability it offered. Charlotte is in a unique position right now, of transition from where a handful of people could make everything happen to where all voices have an opportunity to be heard. As we proceed with this transition, I think we need to respect, maintain and grow the public-private partnership. Critical to that is more broad-based community involvement, including greater outreach to underserved populations, in the entities supporting our public private partnership.

Many of these organizations are already aggressively reaching out to newcomers. I say you cannot be too aggressive. My biggest fear is that we as a community lose good ideas and good people moving forward because we fail to tap into them. To newcomers, I say get involved and get active in your new home. Give back to the community. You won’t regret it. Volunteer your time at your favorite non-profit, give money to your favor museum, ask to serve on a local government committee – you can positively impact this community.

Charlotte’s public-private partnership might be evolving, but it is still a critical factor to our economic success and our ongoing economic development. The more individuals become involved, the more successful we will all become.

Anybody up for a run to Trader Joe’s?

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