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Speed Channel

by Mark Peres

October 7,2008

What a period of change. On the very weekend Time Magazine published a glowing portrayal of Charlotte, reporting that “while the rest of the country is sinking, Charlotte is soaring,” our largest employer was in the throes of a silent run on its assets that led regulators to break up Wachovia and sell its consumer bank to Citigroup. On the morning of the announced acquisition, the gloom was palpable. As I write this, Wells Fargo and Citigroup are negotiating Wachovia’s fate. Life comes at us fast.

In the midst of events, our city newspaper, in a swirl of a creative destruction of its own, is publishing a landmark series about regional change that could not have been timed better by a movie script-writer. Urban writers Neal Peirce, Curtis Johnson and Alex Marshall have written, “Green, Great & Global: A Citistates Report,” prescribing a vision for Charlotte’s future. The report argues that in order for the city to thrive in the 21st century, it must lead on global warming, take critical risks in developing vital city centers, and welcome the world to our doorstep.

We are a living in a pivot point of time. The old order of cheap energy, low-density, subprime-fueled, deregulated finances is convulsing and giving way to a future of green, compact, urban-centered, credit sensitive living – and as painful as the sudden evolutionary jump is – we will be better for it. We would do well to embrace the Citistates Report and see the current dislocation as the moment to embrace a boldly re-positioned city.

Rapid change is evident in the construction cranes all around us – many planted in the last days of the receding paradigm. One of the game-changing projects that will define Charlotte to the world is half-way through construction. The NASCAR Hall of Fame will be a $200 million museum that will identify Charlotte for decades to come. The nighttime-lit, twisting track will be for us what the Gateway Arch is to St. Louis and the Space Needle is to Seattle.

But we need to take care about how celebrating the sport of NASCAR aligns with being the forward-looking, green city that the Citistates Report recommends. For many, NASCAR is a poster child for abusing the environment: an ear-drum busting, carbon-hogging orgy of gas-guzzling race cars, slick oil and blacktop. Many will see the NHOF as a monument to the past – an ill-timed glorification of all that is wrong with how we relate to the planet.

It may be the ultimate irony for a city so determined to gain acclaim that the notice it will get might be derision for betting big on the wrong side of history. Our city will be spending millions for exhibits about lugnuts, rubber, tobacco, carburetors and internal-combustion. How much better if we had invested in an iconic symbol of eco-smart technology and community. So goes the perception, so goes Charlotte.

One might think that the NHOF will showcase the future of racing – some interactive exhibit imagining hybrid or battery-powered cars trading paint at 300 miles per hour. But it will not. Winston Kelley, NHOF Executive Director, noted to me that the NHOF will be retrospective only. NASCAR does not want to suggest anything to its fans that might be an implied promise about the future.

I asked Mr. Kelley about the NHOF in light of the Citstates Report urging that Charlotte go green. He responded that “[o]ur primary mission is to honor the history and heritage of NASCAR. While we have added $2M in environmental enhancements to the NHOF facility to significantly improve the efficiency of the building, I do not see a tie between our facility and the [Citistates] report.”

He further noted that NASCAR has become a superb partner to the community, making a significant positive impact to the regional economy, showing commitment by building its office tower, expanding its NASCAR Media Group, and establishing an R&D Center in the region. Mr. Kelley is right when he suggests we are a stronger, more diversified and interesting city because of NASCAR, but in our desire to promote the NHOF, we should not lose our objectivity about the pace of change. Otherwise, history may leave us in its dust.

If you liked this column, you'll enjoy:

Q&A with Winston Kelley

Q&A with Blake Davidson

Homeward Bound

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