It’s time for metro Charlotte to embrace a regional vision

Just a few hours before he would give the biggest speech of his career at the Democratic National Convention, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx was using his expanding political capital to pitch a group of community and business leaders on the merits of political consolidation between the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. His proposal to study the issue has thus far failed to gain much traction with either elected body — and if no action is taken by the end of this year, it goes back on the shelf.

The mayor argues that consolidation would result in a single government that is leaner, more effective, and better positioned to compete for economic development. It would also provide residents and businesses with better services at a lower cost, he says, from public safety to development plan review. The question of whether Mecklenburg’s six towns would still exist after consolidation hasn’t yet been addressed, and local officials in those communities have virtually ignored the idea.

But regardless of whether Foxx is tilting at windmills, his effort raises questions that will have important implications for Charlotte in coming decades: Can we continue to grow as a city without adopting some larger vision for the region in which we all live? And how can local governments better collaborate with one another to ensure that vision is implemented in a way that brings widespread benefits?

A regional vision involves more than just a discussion of whether building permits are issued by the city or the county, more than just a debate over how we fund our parks and libraries. It calls into question the very method by which our communities plan for growth and attract economic development. It looks at where our regional employment centers will be located, and how we’ll provide the necessary infrastructure to accommodate them. It considers whether our existing housing stock is sufficient to meet the evolving needs of our expanding population, and whether sufficient choices are available for singles, families and the elderly.

While these questions are regularly considered by local planning agencies and boards, it is equally important to consider them from a regional perspective. That’s the purpose of CONNECT Our Future, an initiative launched this year by the Centralina Council of Governments to create a 14-county regional framework for sustainable growth. Funded by a $4.9 million HUD Sustainable Communities Grant and $3 million in local in-kind resources, the Connect initiative will engage public and private organizations in a three-year effort to produce a vision for how the Charlotte region can make the necessary investments in infrastructure, housing and education to remain globally competitive for economic growth.

The Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (REBIC) and other real estate organizations are participating in Connect because we recognize the importance of adopting a regional vision for Charlotte. We understand that roads don’t stop at municipal boundaries, and that businesses don’t care which county their customers and employees come from. The metropolitan areas that share this perspective will be far more effective at luring economic development than those that remain stuck in a balkanized soup of disconnected localities.

While the concept of regionalism is often perceived as a pitch for a larger, more redistributive government, it’s important to remember a regional vision can be adopted without any loss of local authority or control. Cities and towns need not be consolidated or eliminated to achieve a regional vision that allows them to collaborate more effectively with one another. In fact, local governments are strengthened when they work with one another to develop a regional plan for roads and transit that accommodates future growth – ultimately, this exercise can better position them to compete against cities like Atlanta, where a lack of infrastructure is fast becoming a liability.

In a sense, a regional framework for growth serves the same purpose as a chamber of commerce — local governments compete fiercely against one another for economic development, but come together to promote a larger agenda that benefits them all. The Connect initiative presents an unprecedented opportunity to craft such a framework for Charlotte’s future, and our elected officials would be wise to embrace it.

Joe Padilla is REBIC’s executive director. Views expressed here are his and not necessarily the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.