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City Crawls Closer to Cool 

One committee at a time

Hey You! Yeah, you with the iPod, nouveau vintage T-shirt, carefully disheveled hair and new college degree. Over here. Hi, my name is Charlotte. Wanna be friends? What's that? Charlotte: C-h-a-r-l-o-t-t-e. You know, Charlotte, NC, the Queen City - Panthers, Bobcats, lots of banks and um . . .did I mention I have two pro sports teams? Anyway, wazzup? Want to hang out? Hey, where you going? Come back. I'm cool and funky, dammit!

There's a lot to be said for Charlotte: it's pretty clean, safe, has great weather, a healthy economy and is a good place to raise a family — all the stuff the Chamber of Commerce tells people about. But is it the kind of city that the "Creative Class" — hip, knowledgeable 20 or 30-somethings — would seek out as a place to settle down and spread their wings? Well . . .not really.

Enter the Hot Jobs/Cool Communities Initiative, launched last year by a group of "rising leaders" called the Charlotte City Committee. Responding to analyst Richard Florida's well-publicized Rise of the Creative Class, the City Committee hired Next Generation Consulting of Madison, Wis., to oversee focus groups and to rank the city in a number of variables that make a community "cool," such as a vibrant music and arts scene, ethnic diversity, greenspace, tolerance of gays and lesbians, and "strolling corridors" with eclectic shops, restaurants and bars clustered together.

The project's preliminary findings were unveiled last week at Johnson & Wales University. When I arrived at the unveiling, I thought I might be at the wrong place. For an initiative that's supposed to be about making Charlotte more cool and hip, the event looked more like a bankers' conference, with lots of dark business suits and sensible hairdos.

One of the few people there who didn't fit that mold was Rebecca Ryan, the 32-year-old founder of Next Generation Consulting, who talked about how today's young professionals think in terms of "live first, work second." Unlike the generations that preceded them, many younger people today first seek out a desirable city, and then worry about landing the right job. This has resulted in companies relocating to cities like San Francisco and Austin — in essence following the young talent — as opposed to sitting back and waiting for the talent to come to them.

Ryan says that based on her work here, Charlotte's two biggest challenges are social capital — how mixed and inclusive is the community — and after hours entertainment options. So, what to do about it? Ryan's company is currently gathering more data about Charlotte's potential cool factor and will release recommendations in late March.

Is anyone in charge listening?It remains to be seen what, if anything, the city will do with the recommendations. Charlotte has a history of following the lead of conservative business interests, pretty much the antithesis of the "Creative Class." And the dogged tunnelvision that led to building a new downtown arena — despite public opposition and numerous studies showing that large sports facilities no longer work as economic catalysts — won't disappear overnight.

City Councilman Pat Mumford says that while he thinks the Hot Jobs/Cool Communities initiative is important, especially for creating an upwardly mobile job market, the city has no official plans to implement any of the initiative's recommendations.

"I don't see this as a government role to go out and build a stroll district," says Mumford. "But we can put a framework in place that allows the market to respond and change. I think this is a real opportunity for us to push the entrepreneurial spirit in the community. They're the young go-getters that are going to make it happen.

"We can't lose focus that the whole world isn't just about people 25 to 38 years old," Mumford continued. "But as a parent, I would love to have my children come back here. What is it that's going to attract them, yet at the same time, what's going to convince my wife and I to stay? Elderly people on fixed incomes are concerned about health care, cost of living and mobility. They don't really care about drinking coffee and hitting the bars in the stroll district. As a city council member I have to think of the wants and needs of the whole spectrum, and strike a balance."

Most of the people interviewed for this story say it's a good sign that the issue is getting attention here. They also fear that rather than using the intiative's input to make positive changes, the city powers that be will simply use it as a marketing tool to boost the status quo.

What's neededWe asked a few noted local creative types and community leaders what Charlotte needs to do to change its image from Yawn City, NC, to the Creative Class Capital of the South. Charlotte continues to enjoy an influx of diverse cultures, and there are certainly pockets of vital and eclectic entertainment options, but there's no doubt we're lacking in many of the "cool" criteria. Further blocking the city's path to hipdom are political leaders' bone-headed moves like the "rave ordinance," which hampers new entertainment venues, as well as the destruction of the city's historic buildings and emphasizing monolithic, stand-alone sports arenas rather than more inclusive art and cultural venues.

The consensus among the folks we talked to is that while some of our city's "stroll districts" like Uptown, Birkdale and Phillips Place are nice, they're too sterile and homogenized, and that we need more areas like Central Avenue/Plaza that are funky and diverse (see sidebar for upcoming projects).

Melissa Post, curator of the Mint Museum of Craft + Design, says that while Charlotte's uptown is "beautiful and clean," she agrees that it could use an attitude adjustment. "It tends to look inwards, rather than reaching out to the public," Post says. "While uptown offers some interesting experiences, they're spread out and oftentimes presented indoors, at times making the streets seem strangely desolate. With all of the young people moving in for Johnson & Wales, it would be nice to see some shops reflecting younger tastes peppering the uptown area. This would make people want to linger in the city rather than race home elsewhere."

"Streetlife in Charlotte is sorely lacking," says Little Shiva, an artist and publisher of QZ magazine and segment producer for the local TV show, Z-Axis. "We need more individual and city-sponsored art projects — and not just in a museum. The city needs to take some of those big old strip malls, like out on Freedom Drive, and give small business owners incentives to fill them up and let the people revitalize them. The funky stuff thrives in those kinds of weird places. Instead of just going to malls, we need to cultivate areas where people can get out and walk around that are not bank-owned, certified and sanitized."

Local filmmaker Dorne Pentes and co-president of WonderWorld Film/Video says that in addition to taking fundamental steps like supporting multiculturalism and conserving greenspace, he thinks the city should do more to encourage the growth of small businesses in the Center City.

"Charlotte could start by asking Ed Crutchfield and the downtown developers of the 60s, 70s, and 80s to replace all the old buildings they tore down in their greedy quest for a 'new' downtown,'" Pentes says. "The old one was just fine, and if they were still here we'd have a historic tourism industry just like, or better than, Asheville's."

Finally, Jeff Wise, executive director of the Charlotte Whitewater Park — one project that is sure to up Charlotte's cool factor (see sidebar) — says the city needs to stop mimicking other cities and take advantage of its own natural resources. "One of the reasons people love Charlotte is the great weather," says Wise. "We should be a more outdoor-oriented town. That means focusing on significant and extensive outdoor recreation elements. Create more state parks to protect our open spaces with conservation easements and develop places where people can go hiking and biking. We're spending $280 million on a new arena that a vast majority of the market won't use. Things that are spectator-based are nice, but it's not about people sitting and watching, it's about people getting up and doing, and that's what we need to be focused on."

Contact Sam Boykin at sam.boykin@cln.com.

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