When the U.S. Census Bureau released its list of the fastest growing urban areas in the United States, the Charlotte regional marketplace was ranked No. 1 for the 10-year period from 2000 to 2010. Charlotte’s urban area grew by 64.6 percent to 1.25 million people. No urban area with one million or more people grew faster in the century’s first decade than the Charlotte area.
How did the greater Charlotte region become the fastest growing urban area in 10 years? To answer that question, I had the privilege of listening to former Mayor Harvey Gantt at a recent Charlotte Rotary Club meeting. Mayor Gantt spoke from his experience as an important Charlotte leader for 47 years since he was first elected to city council in 1965. He offered personal insight into the preparations, planning, leadership and community efforts that led to this growth. Here are his thoughts and memories and a little about our future.
“We’re a community willing to build a better place to live and do business, with a history of success in so many areas.” He cites civil rights in 1965 during the Civil Rights Movement and how Charlotte stood tall in supporting busing and diversity issues. He also cites the many great mayors who fostered social change and business development with a keen eye on diversity. And, he points out, “We were the first city to peacefully adopt busing and the first to elect a black city council representative.”
“Charlotte has always branded itself as a modern to progressive city. Our wise city fathers pushed planning of the center city while also expanding roads and sewer lines to further housing and school expansion in the suburbs. When retailing started abandoning the center city and moved to shopping malls and especially SouthPark, Charlotte was ready to support that expansion while, at the same time, revitalizing the center city.
“The Charlotte Airport is in a league of its own and especially helpful to business development.” He recalls when Charlotte built a 10,000-foot runway in the early 1970s in preparation for attracting new business to our city. “It worked,” he remarks.
“As suburban growth exploded, center city thrived thanks to the uniqueness of something different at its core. Charlotte’s 10-year business plan, already working, was rekindled every decade, keeping ahead of the trends with an eye to the forecasts for the future. And our leadership always took these plans seriously.
“There were three other phenomena: 1) Smart bankers—regional and state banks merged and became national/world-wide banks, turning Charlotte into a banking center with two big bank headquarters here. Hence, we legitimately became a ‘world class city’ to ourselves and to outsiders. 2)The airport—Due to deregulation and a desire to build the largest airport in our state, Charlotte’s airport offered direct flights to everywhere in the world starting with Piedmont Airlines which has since become U.S. Airways. We became a hub. 3) Civil rights—District representation at public forums—schools, colleges and universities, city council—we believed in and demonstrated openly for diversity. This bore fruit going into the 21st century.
“When the Great Recession slowed things down a bit, Charlotte’s leaders remained optimistic: ‘Things will get better here.’ We’ve become more aggressive in attracting new companies and corporations to bring their headquarters to Charlotte. Our public school system is winning awards and appealing to families considering a move to Charlotte. We’re clearly invested in public education. We have a great cultural center in our uptown…with a score of wonderful, cultural opportunities for visitors and residents to enjoy. And, lastly, we’re building a sustainable community which makes our city even more enticing and thriving.
“Charlotte has raised its status from small town to impressive city…and now based on all of the earlier reasons plus some political ones, we have attracted the Democratic National Convention that will place us on the global stage for several days.
“We are seeking to leverage a successful convention to benefit Charlotte for its future. We have the vision and the leadership in place to become a stronger, more improved community. We can make that happen.”