Breaking the 10-Year Civic Festival Cycle

Breaking the 10-Year Civic Festival Cycle

by Tracy Russ

How does a Charlotte-Mecklenburg community of one million people make key decisions and craft its future? It is past time for the Queen City’s residents and leaders to find an answer that endures.

In the absence of a sustained answer, a cycle has been repeated in Charlotte-Mecklenburg about every ten years for the last three decades that goes something like this:

1) a ranking, study or survey that is rightly alarming, embarrassing or both places Charlotte-Mecklenburg at the bottom of a national list;

2) area leaders and institutions and residents come together to “do something”;

3) we build a fairly robust initiative that fades away as priorities shift to other topics.

Good people, significant resources, the best of intentions and reams of data have fed the cycle each time. But we are stuck in a cycle of building temporary civic festivals around singular issues when what we need is a permanent town square for all issues.

Our opportunities and challenges are not festival size. Smart cities come up with strong answers from healthy, embedded civic infrastructure. As the recent controversy over LGBT protections in local ordinances illustrates, we need lasting civic structures for people, leaders, organizations and institutions to engage together and meet our economic, educational, social, cultural challenges and opportunities.

It is time to build permanent civic infrastructure in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and break our 10-Year Civic Festival Cycle.

1995 – the Peirce Report

In 1995, Citistates writers Neil Peirce and Curtis Johnson asked the Charlotte region “who will lead and to where?” The question anchored a five-part series entitled “Shaping A Shared Future” (see the series here) addressing our future growth, workforce and neighborhoods.

The Peirce Report, as it came to be known, counseled that old patterns of leadership by a homogenous few were a thing of the past, to be replaced by hegemony of the many that could draw on the strengths of our growing diversity. The Peirce Report advised us to create new structures and pathways for leaders and residents to answer key questions together.

The community responded with a robust effort named Central Carolinas Choices (later to become Voices & Choices) that laid the groundwork for many successful regional collaborative efforts today such as Catawba River Basin water management plans and the growing Carolina Thread Trail.

Twenty years on, the strong call to action has faded to a whisper but the echoes can be heard - reading The Peirce Report today brings hauntingly familiar observations, themes and admonitions for change.

2005 – Crossroads Charlotte

In the early part of the new millennium, “Bowling Alone” author Dr. Robert Putnam told us that our Charlotte home ranked next to last in levels of social capital, driven by low levels of trust among racial and ethnic groups.

As in 1995, the community responded, this time with an effort entitled Crossroads Charlotte (see more about Crossroads here), that asked people, organizations and institutions to “Imagine Our Tomorrow, Act Today” to build access, inclusion and equity for people and make progress towards a desirable future.

A spectrum of wonderful outcomes, initiatives, engagement opportunities and impacts emerged out of Crossroads Charlotte but the framework, the civic space, that connected ideas, people, organizations and resources to enable those outcomes is now absent.

Again, it was a great civic festival, but fell short of an enduring civic square.

2015 – Growth and Opportunity

In 2014, we learned that we are the second-fastest growing metropolitan area in America, a ranking that is rife with both possibility and pitfall on a number of fronts. Better to face growth opportunities than claw back from decline challenges, we are told.

We also learned that the Charlotte area is a very difficult place for those at the bottom rungs of economic mobility to move up, according to a Harvard/UC Berkeley study that asked “Where Is the Land of Opportunity?” (see study summary here).  

As in the past, we are gearing up to respond on these fronts and others.

We will “do something” because doing something is what we do.

Can-do is ingrained in our civic DNA.

We Have What We Need to Build Enduring Civic Space

We have enviable advantages to bring to bear as we craft our future, including:

Right scale.  As a community, we are in a sweet spot for action. We are not too big to act nimbly, to assemble collaboratively, to act decisively yet we’re not too small to show that we can meet hard issues and game-changing opportunities at a scale that is a model for American cities.

Right resources. We are growing.  We have economic resources, talented people, committed organizations and institutions, a growing community of social entrepreneurs.

Right timing. We are in a crucial period of our history and development, perhaps never as blessed with potential. But this period of time in our history won’t last forever.  We must seize it now.

As we respond to today’s challenges, we have a chance to build a HOW that can not only serve on the WHAT of the hot issue of the day, but can endure to serve us on issues, challenges and opportunities to come.

We can leverage the great power of our civic pride, connectivity to each other afforded by digital technologies, the commitment of energetic people, the lasting strength of key institutions and organizations to finally get beyond 10-year civic festivals.

The leadership we need to get the job done isn’t one WHO, it is US.