Some 150 people from the Charlotte-area business community attended The Mecklenburg Times’ “Future Charlotte – Building a Vision” inaugural breakfast forum at Byron’s South End on Wednesday morning.
The event, sponsored by CREW Charlotte, featured a panel of community leaders discussing their thoughts on the city’s present and future. In addition, local architects were honored for their submissions of a modern “Charlotte-style” house that resulted from a design challenge by the newspaper and the American Institute of Architects’ Charlotte chapter.
Panelists were Debra Campbell, Charlotte assistant city manager; Rhett Crocker, president of LandDesign; Ned Curran, president and CEO of Bissel and board chairman of the N.C. Department of Transportation; John Komisin, president and chief operating officer of Little architecture company; and Mark Vitner, managing director and senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities. Sharon Roberts, editor of The Mecklenburg Times, moderated the discussion.
Panelists were asked what they thought Charlotte had done correctly in light of the city’s anticipated high-growth rate. Crocker cited the city’s infrastructure, including the transit corridor and Little Sugar Creek Greenway. He said the current funding of eco-friendly projects didn’t exist 10 to 15 years ago. “People are investing in a lifestyle that is walkable and urban,” he said.
Campbell said the premium that Charlotte places on long-term planning has greatly helped.
“lt is the collective vision that we are implementing,” she said, citing the city’s efforts to create livable, safe and viable choices.
Vitner spoke about the development of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. “Charlotte is the only hub that has succeeded outside of Atlanta,” he said. He said another thing done correctly in Charlotte is that affordable housing is not centered in one spot and the city never gave up on the downtown area.
Curran added that companies can choose to invest in either urban or suburban parts of town, a big plus.
When asked what challenges the city faces, Curran answered that the community might have to look at another tax to fund transportation. He said the Charlotte population is slated to grow by one-third over the next 25 years, and “we’re going to have to deal with our transportation infrastructure.”
Campbell said that encouraging responsible development was a priority. She mentioned amenities that include sidewalks, trails, open space and affordable housing.
“Every developer has to put as its major goal livability,” she said, adding that communities that are able to survive “the ebb and flow” put people first.
Komisin said there is a lack of understanding about the ramifications of increased population growth in Charlotte. The city needs to “embrace density in an urban environment.” He said the areas around Cotswold, SouthPark and Woodlawn Road need to transition from suburban to urban. “The population needs to understand what the future looks like,” he said.
Vitner said Charlotte needs to find a new driver of growth, instead of relying on the increasingly regulated financial-services sector and energy. He cited the technology boom in cities such as San Francisco. Vitner also said Charlotte needs to develop more inner-city transportation and vamp up higher-education opportunities.
When asked what future growth industries would be, panelists varied. Vitner saw growth ahead in the asset-management field of financial services, technology based in an urban setting, and energy. Campbell saw growth opportunities in logistics and small businesses.
Komisin said he saw investment in Central Piedmont Community College as an asset. “We need to develop a workforce that can feed whatever sector we decide to focus on,” he said.
Curran agreed that employers deciding on where to conduct business look for an educated employee base.
Campbell said that developing more affordable housing is important, and the city’s “carrot and stick” policy of offering financial incentives to developers may not be enough. She said in the future, regulations requiring that a portion of housing be affordable is possible. “A lot of communities in this country have community zoning,” she said.
Vitner agreed. “Affordable housing on light rail lines is vitally important, as well as affordable housing throughout pockets of the city.” Crocker added, “As we grow we’re going to have to embrace the density.”
When asked to identify a local visionary over the next 25 years will be, Komisin said it would be the organizations that embrace a role in the community. It will be those that ask themselves, “What are we doing in our work life and community to help our city?”
“We’ve been known as a community that expects participation,” said Curran. He mentioned the great impact the Levines have had on the area.
Campbell said public-private partnerships are essential for Charlotte’s future. Through them, she said, “we can continue to achieve things that, if left to one entity, we would not be able to achieve.”
The last question focused on the city’s ability to lure companies. Crocker said he thought the airport, quality of life and green infrastructure were all positives. “This is an environment that embraces development,” he said. Campbell said two issues of concern in that area were transportation and the quality of city schools.