Charlotte seems like the perfect fit for new city manager Ron Carlee. He spent over three decades in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, Virginia, but even though he’s been on the job here in Charlotte for just a short time, the Birmingham, Alabama, native already feels right at home.
“I’m definitely a southern boy, there’s no question about that,” he says with a big grin. “The day we were unpacking, Interim City Manager Julie Burch dropped by with a bottle of champagne. That was a sure sign I was back in the South, because nobody in Washington ‘drops by’ to see anybody, anywhere, anytime. That really told me that I was out of Washington.”
Carlee says he stumbled onto the Charlotte opportunity almost by accident. He was working as chief operating officer of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), but had served as Arlington County manager from 2001 to 2009. In the fall of 2012, he ran into an old friend who happened to work for a search firm that was competing for the contract for the Charlotte city manager search.
“I was very happy at ICMA and wasn’t job hunting, but I did miss city management a little,” Carlee admits. “The Charlotte job profile had my name all over it. If I were writing a profile for myself, I wouldn’t have changed a word. It even said that experience as a chief operating officer in the private sector would be helpful. When I sent it to a couple of my references, they read it and said, ‘This is your job.’”
A Perfect Fit
Carlee, 59, replaces Curt Walton who retired in December 2012 after serving as city manager for five years. The Charlotte City Council and Mayor Anthony Foxx chose Carlee after also considering two internal candidates: Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble and Assistant City Manager Ruffin Hall. Interim City Manager Julie Burch was not a candidate for the job.
Talking to Carlee, you immediately sense the enthusiasm he has for his new city. He liked the fact that Charlotte was large and urban, but had a strong foundation and a focus on the kind of redevelopment initiatives he had spent so much time on while in Arlington. He and his wife, Emily Cross, also visited Charlotte for several days prior to his interview to get a feel for the city, and they were genuinely excited by what they saw and heard.
“Geographically, my wife and I had always limited ourselves to Virginia and North Carolina due to family, friends and culture,” he explains. “She’s from southwest Virginia and I’m from Alabama. I really didn’t want to live any further south than North Carolina, but we also have family and friends within about three hours or less in any direction from Charlotte.”
“Quality of life is important to us,” he continues. “We are at that point in our lives where we’ve worked hard to build great communities, so now we want to live in one. We drove all over the city and talked to as many people as we could in restaurants, shopping and on the street.
“What we heard from every single person was that they loved living here. I’ve been in other communities where people were defensive, depressed, or even had a chip on their shoulder. That’s not the way it is here.”
Carlee was also impressed with the basic foundation that is in place in Charlotte. He asked the city planning director to show him some of Charlotte’s most challenged neighborhoods, but was pleasantly surprised that, unlike many other large cities, those neighborhoods seemed to have strong foundations and social fabric on which to build. He also liked that Charlotte is what he calls an “aspirational” city.
“Everybody here wants to do better and that is really critical,” he says emphatically. “I’ve been in other communities that are good, but they seem happy with where they are. They think they are already there, but they’re not. People here seem to have a strong sense that we’re good, and we’ve done some good stuff, but we’ve got more stuff to do. We can be an even better community than we already are.”
“I also want to emphasize how impressed I’ve been with the quality of the staff here,” Carlee continues. “People ask me how I feel about going into a community where your deputy and one of your assistants were both candidates for the job. But honestly, if this city had no qualified internal candidates, that would have been a red flag for me. So I’m thrilled to have quality staff.”
The couple has no children and they’ve decided to live uptown, renting a center city apartment for a time until they can better understand the uptown real estate market. He says he’s looking forward to living in an urban, walkable environment where he doesn’t need to spend a lot of time in a car commuting to and from work every day. He even says he hopes to try the city’s bike-sharing program when he gets settled in a bit.
Carlee on the Issues
One of the first challenges the new city manager faces is the ongoing battle between the city and the North Carolina Legislature over a proposed bill that would transfer control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport to an independent authority. Carlee has considerable experience working with independent authorities, having worked with both the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and the Metropolitan Washington Transit Authority while in Arlington.
While he’s keeping an open mind and waiting on the recommendations from the independent consultant hired to study the issue, Carlee openly expresses his concerns about authority-based management.
“I’m on the record as being suspect of authorities, but that doesn’t mean I’m anti-authority,” explains Carlee. “The reality is that either authorities or city departments can be successful or fail depending on the quality of leadership. But authorities oftentimes operate absent real accountability outside of the authority itself.”
Carlee uses the Metropolitan Washington Transit Authority to illustrate what can happen when authority governance goes badly. He was a member of a special task force that traced many of that transit system’s problems to micromanagement by board members concerned about the specific interests they represented, as opposed to the stewardship of the system itself.
“If the airport remains a department of the city, my intent is to run it like an enterprise,” Carlee says. “The aviation director has been very clear that his main objectives are to have the best customer service at the lowest cost. I think those are exactly the right objectives.”
Carlee is also a passionate advocate for public transit, including streetcars, but he sees transit as a part of a comprehensive economic development strategy rather than just a standalone transportation strategy. He uses his former city of Arlington as a prime example of how unified transportation and land use planning can work.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Arlington was a dying inner suburb as department stores moved out, buildings sat empty, and schools closed. But instead of building the Metro as a commuter train down Interstate 66 as originally planned, visionary leaders back then decided to put the subway right down the center of Arlington, while simultaneously updating the land use plan to allow higher density development.
“That land use transportation initiative is what turned Arlington around,” Carlee says enthusiastically. “I think the visionaries in Charlotte with the Blue Line, the Red Line, and the streetcar are trying to look forward in this same way. Charlotte has a great uptown, but as you go out into some of the neighborhood commercial areas, you see abandoned stores and empty parking lots. But these are good assets in great, accessible locations, and the neighborhoods adjacent to them are solid. We need to get the private sector in this city focused on redevelopment as opposed to green field development. By doing land use and transit together, the opportunities in this city are phenomenal.”
While he also sees the potential of the proposed Charlotte streetcar, he is quick to add that he will wait for the completion of the economic impact and funding study before drawing his final conclusions on that controversial project.
“If the streetcar can really stimulate significant private investment, redevelopment, and growth in areas where we want it to occur, why would we not want to do that?” asks Carlee. “But if it can’t do that, why would we want to do it? So I see streetcar not just as a streetcar; I see it as part of an integrated redevelopment and transportation strategy.”
Carlee also has a strategic view on using public money to help the Carolina Panthers improve Bank of America Stadium. He says that cities that want to play on the world stage need to have professional sports as one of the many institutional anchors in a community. So when the City and the Carolina Panthers reached agreement on a public/private partnership and voted to support an $87.5 million package late April, Carlee agrees it was a good investment for the local community as well as the NFL in Charlotte.
“I wouldn’t want to have sports and not have the arts; but I also wouldn’t want to have the arts and not have professional sports,” he explains. “In today’s world, you are not going to keep a professional football team unless you are willing to bring public resources to the table. There are a bunch of aspirational cities that will be eager to put up a lot of money so they can make a bigger mark themselves.
Finally, while the council has not yet agreed on an updated Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for 2013, Carlee is optimistic the plan can be updated in the months ahead, and he says the characterization that the city is operating without a current CIP just is not accurate. He makes the point that the CIP is actually a five-year plan, so a plan is in place, it’s just the plan approved in 2012.
“While it was disappointing to the council it did not get one passed last year, it did not mean that capital programs stopped,” he explains. “In fact, a lot of capital development has been going on very aggressively for the past year. What the city did not do last year was adopt an updated capital plan. If you just skip a year revising it, it doesn’t mean you’ve stopped your capital program. In Arlington, we updated the CIP every other year.”
A Changing Landscape
Over the years, Charlotte has benefitted from a core of strong homegrown business leaders who have been highly effective in influencing the growth and development of Charlotte in positive ways. But in recent years, the business landscape and the key players have changed, so the challenge for Charlotte is to adjust to those changes. Mayor Foxx and the council have specifically asked Carlee to reach out to build new relationships with the business community and he says he also intends to reach out to our institutions and neighborhood organizations as well.
“The best cities are going to be those that can do cross-sector planning and collaboration together,” offers Carlee. “We don’t want factions competing with each other, but collaborating and trying to build win-win situations that advantage everyone in the community. We are inextricably interrelated with one another, so if we have weaker parts of this community, it’s going to work to the disadvantage of the entire community.”
“I think we need to develop distinctive redevelopments so people have lots of different choices,” Carlee concludes. “We don’t need high-density everywhere. We will still have Ballantyne and other more traditional suburban developments as well as our solid working class inner neighborhoods. We need to offer a range of lifestyles that will suit just about anyone who wants to come and live in a place like this where we have a good climate and warm, friendly people.”