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Q and A with Jeff Michael

by Mark Peres

July 8,2009

Jeff Michael is Director of University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Urban Institute. Prior to joining the Urban Institute in 2003, Jeff was Executive Director of the Wildacres Leadership Initiative in Durham, NC, a statewide leadership program focusing on human relations. A planner, conservationist and attorney, Jeff began his career with the Yadkin-Pee Dee Lakes Project, where he led strategic planning to promote economic and environmental sustainability for the multi-county region. He serves on several boards, including Wildacres Retreat, the Conservation Trust of North Carolina, and Charlotte ViewPoint. Jeff received a B.S. in Business Administration and an M.A. in Regional Planning from UNC-Chapel Hill, and a J.D. at the UNC School of Law.

What is the work of the Urban Institute? What do you do?

The Urban Institute is an applied research center that provides objective data and analysis about the region to people and organizations who primarily serve the public interest, and we bring people together in a convening role introducing practitioners to emerging fields of thought. The Institute provides a wide range of services, including economic development research, land-use and natural resource consulting, public opinion surveys, and community planning Our audience are those people who use and consume data to meet the needs of the Charlotte region. That includes government officials, planners, neighborhood associations, non-profits, foundations, faculty and students.

How are you funded and organized?

About one-third to a half of our operating budget comes from North Carolina state appropriation helping us serve the academic and public service component of our mission. We launched in 1969, four years after the university became part of the UNC system. The first Chancellor of UNC Charlotte, Dean Colvard, had an ethic of service and outreach, and believed that a great urban university should serve the public not unlike our great land grant universities. That service includes real-world research conducted by our faculty and students. The remaining half of our operating budget comes from foundations, corporations, governments and non-profits who engage us for particular reports, analysis and forums.

We have 20 people on staff. For many years, we were organized around divisions that addressed economic development, land use and environmental planning, school services and a survey center. All that work is still being done, but we no longer do it in silos. We are organized currently under general research to benefit from interdisciplinary thinking and the cross-fertilization of ideas. We do house two programs that fall outside of general research: the Charlotte branch of the Renaissance Computing Institute, or RENCI, which is a collaboration on campus and across NC campuses that brings together multidisciplinary experts and advanced technology to address complex quality of life issues in the state; and the Center for Transportation Policy Studies.

Tell us about some of the Institute’s recent work.

The Institute recently participated in two notable reports: the Charlotte CitiStates Report and the Crossroads Charlotte Social Capital Benchmark Community Survey. Both are examples of work we have done partnering with organizations in the broader community. We also recently updated our Regional Indicators Report.

In 2008, thanks to a generous grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, syndicated columnist Neal Peirce with colleagues Curtis Johnson and Alex Marshall updated a 1995 report that examined opportunities and challenges arising from the growth of the region. The 2008 update made specific recommendations for Charlotte to go green, develop vital city centers, and welcome newcomers from around the world. This spring, we convened forums around the region to discuss the report. We intentionally did not hold a forum in the center of Charlotte to be less Charlotte-centric and to challenge residents to think regionally. One take-away was that residents outside the city are more familiar with growth issues facing the city than city residents are with growth issues facing the region. We also saw evidence that citizens outside Charlotte are ahead of Charlotteans in going green. For example, Cabarrus County, often seen as the poster child of urban sprawl, is the first local county to legislate a growth boundary and is now down-zoning land.

This year, on behalf of the Foundation For The Carolinas and Crossroads Charlotte, we conducted a telephone survey building upon a 2001 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. The 2009 survey showed a 28% increase in diversity of friendship but little notable movement in interracial trust since 2001. My personal view is that it is premature to draw any conclusions. Diversity of friendship is a first step toward more social trust, and a second survey will be conducted in 2011 to measure progress.

In 2007, we launched the Regional Indicators Report to serve as a dashboard of quality of life indicators to help officials address emerging issues proactively. We update the report regularly and over time we will begin to see trends around housing, transportation, environmental concerns and other issues. Our long-term goal is to create a web-based platform that will allow people to generate their own tables, charts and maps to democratize the data.

How do you see the Urban Institute evolving?

People are increasingly looking to the Internet to access and distribute knowledge. We are conceptualizing how we might better leverage the Internet to fulfill our mission of being a resource around policy issues and our convening role of encouraging dialogue.

What is your outlook on the region?

I’m optimistic that we are seeing the first results of intentional efforts to address our core issues. For example, light rail is evidence that we understand the importance of transit in addressing patterns of sprawl. It shows that we can be ahead of other regions such as Raleigh-Durham that don’t have transit. My concern is that we are not moving fast enough. If we don’t get moving, we risk not being able to compete with other cities that already have established transit systems. I’m also concerned about our ability to create a diversified economy. We don’t have the advantages of state government or a more mature, advanced research university to spur diversification. We may become an energy or medical hub, but that takes time. We are in an uncertain period, but we’ve been there before. There seems to be something in our DNA that propels us forward. I wouldn’t bet against Charlotte.

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