Movers and shakers back visionary’s ‘Sustain Charlotte’

By: Sam Boykin//November 5, 2010//

Movers and shakers back visionary’s ‘Sustain Charlotte’

By: Sam Boykin//November 5, 2010//

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SHARED VISION: Shannon Binns, left, executive director of Sustain Charlotte, shakes hands with Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx Monday at an event to launch Sustain Charlotte's campaign, "Charlotte 2030: A Sustainable Vision For Our Region." Photo by Sam Boykin

Shannon Binns’ message isn’t new, but he’s hoping how he delivers it and who helps him will make people take notice.

But first he has to get the Charlotte community, particularly the business community, to financially back his vision, a goal that might not be easy as nonprofits everywhere are dealing with funding challenges in a tough economy.

But Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte, which he founded about a year ago to improve the city’s sustainability, is undeterred.

And so far, the 33-year-old has been able to corral some of the city’s heavy hitters to support his cause, many of whom were on hand Monday for the official launch of Sustain Charlotte’s campaign, “Charlotte 2030: A Sustainable Vision For Our Region.”

The event, held uptown, outlined goals for Charlotte in 10 areas: air, buildings and homes, economy, energy, food, parks and green space, waste, social equity, transportation and water.

Guest speakers included Mayor Anthony Foxx and Mecklenburg County Commissioners Jennifer Roberts and George Dunlap.

“If the business community embraces this idea, there’s no doubt it will make a significant environmental impact in Mecklenburg County,” Dunlap said after the event. “But it’s calling for a cultural shift, and that takes a lot of education. It’s like running a political campaign. You’ve got to raise money to heighten the awareness.”

Before he addressed a crowd of about 50, Foxx said Charlotte needs the involvement of all residents to improve the city’s sustainability. The process, he said, is going to be long-term.

“The biggest obstacle is balancing long-term benefits with upfront costs,” he said.

‘Shannon is amazing’

Binns has impressed many with his plan.

“Shannon is amazing in how he can pull people together and express the need for sustainability in a way that resonates with the public,” said Ernie McLaney, director of Central Piedmont Community College’s Center for Sustainability and a member of Sustain Charlotte’s board of directors.

“The good news is that there’s already a lot of good environmental initiatives and work going on in Charlotte,” said Mary Tribble, president of Tribble Creative Group, an event-planning company. “What Sustain Charlotte can do is bring all the different initiatives together into one unified voice,” she said.

Shannon said his ability to be persuasive and personable helps get his message across. But he admits that it’s going to take more than that to get his vision off the ground.

“Ultimately, for us to continue to exist we’re going to need funding,” he said. “I can only do this on a volunteer basis for so long. But the interest and support have grown much more quickly than I anticipated. To me this suggests this is the right time to do something like this. I think the community is really hungry for it.”

Binns hasn’t identified specific projects for Sustain Charlotte, although he plans to craft those over the next six months.

Funding to bring the Sustain Charlotte vision to life might be hard to come by, though.

Bill Gupton, chairman of the Central Piedmont Sierra Club and a member of Sustain Charlotte’s board of directors, said all nonprofits and environmental groups are facing a tough road right now — and not just in finding funding.

“With any sort of movement or campaign, there’s the problem of fear and inertia,” he said. “People are afraid of change, especially if they think it’s going to cost them more money. So many organizations are having a hard time.”

Binns said Sustain Charlotte’s biggest expense has been the publication of its campaign brochure, most of which was covered by donations — less than $1,000 — and discounted design and production fees.

“Not many people know about us yet,” Binns said, “but hopefully that will start to change.”

Life before Charlotte

Binns, an Iowa native, said he worked as a manufacturing engineer with Motorola and General Motors before he got involved in environmental issues.

In 2002 he began working with the National Civilian Community Corps in Perry Point, Md., and spent about a year working on environmental issues across the Northeast, usually in collaboration with state and national parks.

He then went overseas, where he worked with the Peace Corps in the African county of Senegal, helped start a nonprofit in Thailand after the 2005 tsunami and taught English in Prague. After he received a master’s degree in environmental science and policy from Columbia University in New York in 2007, he moved to Charlotte to be closer to his family. That same year he landed a job as program manager with Green Press Initiative, an Asheville-based nonprofit that works to reduce the environmental impact of the book and newspaper industries.

Seeing an opportunity

Binns said that after he moved to Charlotte he saw an opportunity to create a unified organization to improve the city’s sustainability. It was a far-reaching vision, one that touched on everything from how homes are built and people get around to where grocery stores are built and what kind of foods they offer to how energy is made and how much water the community uses.

Binns began reaching out to people in Charlotte.

He pitched his idea early this year about Sustain Charlotte to Foxx, Roberts and Dunlap, all of whom agreed to support the initiative.

“It’s hard for people to say what I’m doing is a bad idea,” Binns said. “So it hasn’t been a tough sale.”

Binns also joined civic groups such as the Charlotte Arts & Sciences Leadership Program and the Young Affiliates of the Mint Museum. He made presentations before well-connected environmental organizations, such as The Charlotte Green Team, a consortium of organizations that advocate for sustainable construction and design practices.

The Green Team was co-founded by Tim Newman, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, and Tribble.

Binns also made a presentation late last year before the Charlotte Chamber’s GreenWorks, an organization that helps the chamber and local businesses identify sustainable initiatives. GreenWorks committee member Robert McElfresh said he was impressed by Binns and agreed to sit on Sustain Charlotte’s board of directors. McElfresh, director of energy services for the Charlotte location of GAI Consultants Inc., a Homestead, Pa.-based engineering and environmental consulting firm, said GAI helped pay for most of the costs to print Sustain Charlotte’s campaign brochure.

Binns eventually connected with more than 100 people representing a cross section of Charlotte’s business, political, nonprofit and academic communities. Many of those people attended a forum in April hosted by Sustain Charlotte and the Center for Sustainability at CPCC. Attendees brainstormed to identify challenges facing Charlotte’s goal to become more sustainable.

Other meetings and workshops followed, and the group Binns organized eventually came up with the 10 categories outlined in the new Sustain Charlotte campaign, as well as what they envision for each category in 20 years.

Unified voice

David Merryman of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation — an advocacy group that protects the Catawba River, which provides drinking water for much of the Charlotte area — helped draft the section in the Sustain Charlotte campaign about how to improve Charlotte’s water quality and supply.

Merryman said that while there’s always been an interest from the Charlotte environmental community to work together, most groups are usually too busy with their own projects.

“Coordinating group efforts can become a low priority, but Shannon is willing to be the point person to facilitate that,” he said. “He really helped draw us all together, and now more of us are working towards the same purpose.”

Merrymam said presenting a united voice is crucial to the success of Sustain Charlotte, especially when it comes to securing financial support.

“I think Sustain Charlotte has the ability to bring in the business community,” he said. “And if they’re engaged, I believe they will use some of their dollars towards making certain projects happen.”

And that’s the challenge that Binns now faces: finding funding.

“We haven’t at this point sought financial support from the community, but we’ll likely start doing that very soon,” he said.

Over the next six months, Binns plans to create an advisory board to identify short-term goals and strategies to meet them.

“We have to give people something they can sink their teeth into,” he said. “The success of what we’re trying to do is going to depend on how many citizens we can engage.”

Sam Boykin can be reached at [email protected].

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