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How Charlotte Bought Off Bob 

And became a "Most Livable City"

All in all, Bob McNulty has got it pretty good. A couple times a decade, he and he alone makes the final decision as to which cities will get the coveted title of America's "Most Livable." In between these bestowings, city leaders across the country who normally wouldn't give the leader of a small non-profit the time of day scramble to get on his good side so that when the time comes, Bob (with some input from his staff, of course) will add them to the exclusive list released annually by the Partners for Livable Communities (PLC), the non-profit organization over which McNulty presides.

This year, I'm pleased to announce, Charlotte has succeeded in buying off Bob. Last week, as local political leaders reveled in the glory of making the list by making tear-jerker speeches about what it took to get here, I, like many other Charlotteans I've talked to, had the distinct feeling that something didn't quite add up. Great city? Sure. Best city at buying an image it hasn't earned? Definitely. But most livable?

Charlotteans weren't alone in our confusion about the award. In news reports around the country, it seems that residents of some of the other "most livable" cities had the same reaction.

So I decided to take a closer look at Bob's operation. When you go back a few years, a pattern of odd coincidences begins to emerge. It seems that those cities that pony up tens of thousands of dollars to participate in one of McNulty's "programs" -- Bob is, of course, very well paid -- have an uncanny way of winding up on the "Most Livable" list.

Charlotte was first recognized by the PLC as a "Most Livable" city in 2000, the same year Bank of America and Wachovia paid PLC $50,000 to participate in the organization's Creative City program, described on PLC's website as a "multi-year technical assistance and networking program." Of the 17 cities and counties that also paid to participate in the program, more than half made the "Most Livable" list this year, including such random locales as Shelby County, Tennessee, Marquette County, Michigan, and Ventura, California.

Bob explains it this way:

"When we designed our one-time-only-for-this-decade recognition program of most livable, we decided to use the criteria of the creative economy," he said. "So it was logical that about 9 of the 17 cities we were working with were on the roster because we got to know them really well."

Uh-huh. "And how much did the banks each pay to your organization?" I asked Bob, at which point he explained that he just didn't have time to dig up that information for us. "That's a secondary issue, OK?" he huffed into the phone.

Or is it? PLC, which McNulty founded in 1977, is an organization with a budget the same size as that of our local humane society and claims to be helping communities across America become more livable with various initiates and programs. We can't vouch for how much PLC is helping out cities around the US, but it's definitely enriching the lives of McNulty and his wife Penelope. Together, the couple's generous salaries and benefit packages consumed almost a third of the organization's $846,324 budget in 2002, according to the group's tax return. PLC pays Bob $193,560 a year for his services. Mrs. McNulty, a "development officer" at PLC, is paid another $54,420.

But it's not like there's anyone to object. The officers and board of PLC are stacked with many of the leaders of the same cities that happened to win the award this time or have won it in the past. If Charlotte deserves an award for anything, it should be stacking the PLC. Two of PLC's five officers hold positions at Wachovia and Bank of America. Mayor Pat McCrory is on the board of trustees.

All of this is no doubt very profitable for Bob, especially since this "once-in-a-decade" award has been given out twice so far in the last four years and will be given out for the third time this decade in 2009.

Before the awards were announced this time, each of the 30 cities that won were "invited" by the PLC to donate $10,000 to help "support the group's website." All donated. Charlotte's donation came from the Charlotte Auditorium and Convention Center Authority, a city agency, The Charlotte Center City Partners, and The Chamber of Commerce.

Of course, the folks at PLC insist that none of this influences them. They use a specific set of criteria that includes affordable housing, combating sprawl, tourism and regionalism, combating gridlock and improving the environment, they say. The cities they've chosen have set "a shining example of what cities should strive for," they insist.

Uh-huh. Perhaps Bob should actually visit Charlotte before we cut him another check.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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