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Learning from Motown

by Winn Maddrey

November 10,2008

To say that the past few weeks, perhaps longer, have tested our country and Charlotte would be an understatement. The financial turmoil in the financial markets, the federal bailout/rescue plan and the end of Wachovia hurt. And even more hurt may be on the horizon. Long term consequences are unknown to us at this point. But let me share a perspective that I think is worth noting, listening to and perhaps we can take a few cues from.

Right now I am in Detroit. By choice. I am here for a three-day conference, which ends as I write this today. Detroit, as many have joked and continue to joke, has had a rough past. I will concede that. And it, like Charlotte, has an uncertain future.

Let me give you a lay of the land of Detroit as it is today. Detroit’s ex-mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is off to jail for 120 days for obstruction of justice charges. The Big Three automakers are in talks with the federal government for some sort of bailout and The Center for Automotive Research says, “a bankruptcy filing by one or more domestic automakers could result in the loss of 2 million jobs,” (USA Today, 10.28.08, “Auto supplier base is teetering”). The Detroit Lions are winless. As I walk around downtown, I see tired, old, dilapidated buildings, many of whom are artfully decorated with spray paint renderings and graffiti. On our drive to dinner last night, the horizon was dotted with smokestacks, some dormant, others’ plumes pierced the frigid air, illustrated the vestiges of a manufacturing industry on the edge.

With that as the backdrop, one, or at least I, would have expected a downtrodden point of view from your average Detroiter. I was completely off base. Civic pride runs rampant. The people from the area all stop, take a moment and share information and stories of why they choose to live here and why they plan to stay. At the same time, they acknowledge that the area has endured harsh economic times for many years. To me, resilience is, or has become, part of the DNA of this community. I heard things like, “I moved here in 1984 and I could not have made a better choice,” “Once you get to know Detroit – the big D – you will love her,” and so on.

So what is going on in Detroit that is so positive? Attitude, to start. New casinos are sprouting up. New attempts at alternative industry, some auto-related, others not, are arising. Music, as I assumed, plays a pivotal role in connecting and providing hope, and is a bedrock component of the community. The foundation of Detroit, shaken, fixed, shaken again, has only made people here more committed, more dedicated and more unwilling to give up – even if they do not know what tomorrow will bring.

I think it is admirable. By contrast, in Charlotte, it seems like the sky is falling. Or the sky is moving. Or the sun won’t rise. A couple down the block from me put their house on the market two weeks ago and are moving to an apartment to ride out the economic storm. Many of us are concerned about our jobs, our homes, our friends, our children’s friends. And most of the tone that I have heard has had the feel of a 50-pound weight on each shoulder. We seem incredulous. How could this happen to us? To Charlotte? Other places, like Cleveland or Detroit, sure. But us? Really?

I do not mean to insinuate that we should ignore the realities confronting us. But I think we could learn some lessons from Motown about how to focus on the future, work hard and believe – believe that we can reclaim what we had and what we were about to be. Sure, because of our troubles, our eyes are a little more open, a little more bleary, and yet, I think we can work to become an evolved Charlotte. Last time I checked, Charlotte was founded at the intersection of two Indian trading paths. Much history has occurred since then, but we’re still here.

By the way, GM’s headquarters is named the Renaissance Center.

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