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Boosterism Breakdown 

Chamber airs dirty laundry

The folks at the Charlotte Chamber have always been boosterism mercenaries who'd sooner commit hara-kiri than speak a single negative word about this county. Under normal circumstances, if there were, say, a hazardous radiation leak uptown, the Chamberites might send someone out to give a dog and pony show on the little-known benefits of radiation. It's just the way they are.

So when they showed up at a city committee meeting armed with a stack of PowerPoint slides documenting the county's economic decline in over a dozen categories, it sent chills right up my spine.

During an hour-long presentation on September 30, Chamber representatives tried to warn the committee members about what's going on. At the time, I figured it was important enough that someone would actually report it. But three weeks later, after the Charlotte Observer flubbed its article on the meeting, much of the public still has no idea what was said.

Now, normally when the Observer reports that retail sales in Mecklenburg County are growing by an average of 3.4 percent a year when they actually declined by a total of 9 percent over the last two years, it's no big deal. Every reporter, including this one, makes mistakes, especially with statistics. But when that 9 percent represents a decline of over $1 billion a year in retail sales in 2001 and 2002, and when representatives of the Charlotte Chamber refer to it as "shocking," it's important to at least make a note of it, in my humble opinion.

That was only the beginning. Here's what else the Charlotte Chamber had to say that you probably haven't heard about:

Annual job creation in Mecklenburg County dropped below 10,000 new jobs for the first time in nearly a decade in 2001. (To put this in perspective, in 1999, 19,758 new jobs were created in Mecklenburg County. That number fell from 17,571 in 2000 to only 9,548 in 2001, a 52 percent drop in annual job creation since 1999.)

Retail sales in Cabarrus and Union counties rose by 15 and 9 percent respectively over the same period that retail sales in Mecklenburg County declined.

Since 1999, the vacancy rate for office space in Mecklenburg County has more than doubled to 15 percent. Over the same period, the rate of new office construction has plunged 91 percent from the 3.4 million square feet built in 1999 to less than 300,000 square feet projected to be completed in 2003.

Since 1999, the number of building permits pulled by developers in Mecklenburg County annually has fallen by more than half, from 14,000 in 1999 to just over 6,000 in 2003. In 2003, for the first time, the number of building permits pulled by contractors in Mecklenburg County is expected to fall below the number pulled in surrounding counties.

Forty percent of all workers in Union County and 34 percent of those in Cabarrus County now work in Mecklenburg. Most of Mecklenburg's annual 3.4 percent population growth occurs on the county's fringes and much of the region's growth is occurring right over the county line.

All of the above is important because property and sales taxes make up 32 percent of the city's revenue and 53 percent of the county's revenue. About 44 percent of that is paid by businesses.

According to Chamber statistics, in the mid-1990s, an average of 1,000 new firms opened their doors in Mecklenburg County on an annual basis. But by 2002, the number of new firms locating here annually gradually fell into the 600s, the lowest numbers the county has seen in over a decade.

What's so disturbing about much of this is that it can't entirely be blamed on the national economic slowdown, because many of these downward trends started while the economy was still roaring in the late 1990s.

Mecklenburg's economic situation has hardly reached a crisis point, of course. We're still creating jobs and attracting businesses. But if the information above scared the folks at the Charlotte Chamber enough that they're actually warning elected officials about it in public, something's up.

Sure, the folks at the Chamber, who until now have never encountered a government program they didn't like, have been a bit freaked out of late about new development policies that, if passed, would virtually halt the approval of new development in areas of the county not along transit lines, a move they fear will make the problems described above even worse.

But the statistics the Chamber let loose at that meeting point to a bigger problem -- the beginning of an exodus of development over the county line.

The problems the Chamber outlined can't just be swept under the rug as if they don't exist. This is the stuff politicians need to be talking about and dealing with or else why did they run for office? This is the stuff the media needs to cover.

Contact Tara Servatius at @tara.servatius@cln.comcln.com.

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