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Charlatans vs Charlotteans

by Aaron Houck

October 7,2008

Early October 2008 had already been an anxious time for Charlotte. Hurricanes had disrupted oil refineries, leading to massive gasoline shortages. The national economy was in disarray, due to overzealous lending and borrowing practices that had frozen credit markets. But then came the kicker: Wachovia was no more. Initial reports stated that Citigroup would buy the bank. A few days later came word that Wachovia would instead be sold to Wells Fargo. The nation’s second-largest banking city was stunned.

As thousands of people waited in gasoline lines that wrapped around city blocks, the questions began. What does this mean for jobs? What does this mean for my checking account? What does this mean for that unfinished office tower? What does this mean for Bank of America’s future in Charlotte? What does this mean?!

The meaning of this event was best described by Jeff Michael, Director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, who said, “we may have just witnessed the beginning of the end of Charlotte's upward trajectory, or alternatively, we may be getting ready to see just how resilient this city really is.”

The resilience required for continued success will require a change of identity for the people of Charlotte. We are going to have to become real Charlotteans instead of what we have been too often for too long: Charlatans.

Charlatans see the world as they wish it was, preferring enthusiasm and a can-do attitude to hard work and due diligence. I have been dismayed by the number of influential supporters of projects like the 2030 Transit Plan who have a superficial knowledge of its details. Talking about the future “light-rail line” to Davidson betrays a fundamental ignorance of some of the most basic aspects of this billion-dollar-plus project. This is not to say that the Transit Plan is a bad idea, but simply calling its opponents “knuckle-draggers” is not a real argument in its favor. Charlatans push for light rail over bus-rapid transit in the Southeast corridor due to preference; Charlotteans will have to dig into the dirty details and evaluate whether light rail really is worth close to twice as much as BRT.

Charlatans are also frequently members of a cult of personality (which are themselves led by other, often more insidious, Charlatans). A public intellectual mentions Charlotte in a best-selling book, and we spend thousands to bring him and his “consultants” to proffer vague words of wisdom. We abandon land-use and infrastructure plans that have been years in the making because a developer who is a “good guy” has a new vision for the parcels he has acquired. This constant reshuffling of priorities frequently leads to great private profit at public expense. Charlatans look to be led to the next pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; Charlotteans will have to set an agenda and hold everyone to the same high standards.

We have all been guilty of this Charlatanism: politicians, business people, non-profit groups – even (especially?) columnists! The easy success that had come to Charlotte (due in no small part to the presence of Wachovia) created a climate that bred a unique blend of boosterism and intellectual laziness. And there were no consequences to suffer. We could make decisions based on wishful thinking, the demands of charismatic figures, or platitudes and jargon. A poorly planned project or misguided initiative would – at its worst – wither on the vine. Nothing could stop the Charlotte juggernaut. Well, the stakes have just been raised, and choosing the wrong project or policy could have serious costs for Charlotte’s future.

What does the fall of Wachovia mean? It means that Charlotte is ready for a new kind of decision making. Charlotte has been run from the top-down, with a small, elite group driving policy on numerous fronts. We still need the contributions of the elite, but they need to focus their efforts and seek a deeper understanding of those projects. In other cases, the elite need to loosen the reins of power and allow for bottom-up growth of public policy and the economy. We need to open up the marketplace of ideas so that we come to value analysis over enthusiasm, rigor over relationships, data over catchphrases. We need to drive the Charlatans from our midst and face the post-Wachovia world as Charlotteans.

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