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June 2006
How Do“They” Know?
By Lisa Hoffmann

It happens all the time. You’re standing around the water cooler or enjoying lunch with coworkers when inevitably someone says, “They say most people want the new light rail system,” or “They say the population of University City is booming.” Have you ever stopped to think about just who “they” are? For the Charlotte region, often “they” are the members of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, a nonprofit research and community outreach unit of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.


Reaching Out with Research

It takes a mighty vision to transform a junior college into a fully accredited member of the University of North Carolina system. In 1966, Dean Colvard was appointed as the first chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and did just that.

Colvard hailed from Mississippi State University, a land-grant institution. Land-grant institutions are developed on federally controlled land and are designed to provide cooperative extension services, allowing the community at large to benefit from research-based knowledge derived from local universities.

Although UNC Charlotte was not itself a land-grant institution, Colvard brought that service ethic to the university and, in the interest of community outreach, founded the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute in 1969.

“We’re here to provide a public service by offering a link to the resources of the university and applying its expertise to the challenges of the community,” says Jeff Michael, the Institute’s director.

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute conducts an annual survey as an affordable means of gauging public opinion on a whole host of community issues including transportation, healthcare, education, government effectiveness, cultural interests and overall quality of life.

Many agencies are eligible to participate in this comprehensive service, which includes everything from assistance in defining the problem and designing survey questions to consultation on interpretation of the results.

“It’s all about public resource investments,” Michael explains. “We strive to provide the information needed to direct the region’s decision-makers as to how they can address challenges. We can also get our finger on the pulse of citizens’ feelings about certain issues through various research methodologies such as phone or mail surveys, interviews and focus groups.”

The Institute’s strategic focus is shifting to playing a more convening role, utilizing its research to generate discussion. Toward that effort, it hosted its first annual regional conference, “The Changing Face of the New South: Latinos in the Greater Charlotte Region” in April. Working in conjunction with the Latin American Coalition and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Institute assessed the needs of the growing Latino community.

“The Charlotte region is changing dramatically though both rapid population growth and demographics,” Michael says. “We need to find intelligent ways to respond to that.”

Various presentations at the conference included “The Impact of the Hispanic Population of the State of North Carolina,” “Immigration from the Mexican Perspective,” and “Federal Immigration Policy, Employment and Local Issues.” The presentations gave way to productive break out sessions where lively and provocative discussions took place, Michael reports.

“Change can’t happen without discussion,” Michael says. “Conversations lead to action.”


Economic Impressions

Once a distinctly Southern pastime, motorsports have inarguably become a national sport. A few years ago, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute conducted a research study on the regional economic impact of motorsports. The study revealed that the total economic impact of motorsports on the state in 2003 was more than $5 billion, with $3.9 billion of that impacting the Charlotte area alone, creating more than 18,000 jobs. 

“Attracting out-of-state companies gets a lot of attention,” Michael says. “It’s also important to consider how much energy and resources we want to put into keeping and growing what we already have here.”

More recently, the Charlotte Chamber University City commissioned a study of the regional economic impact of the University City area. Intensive research revealed an $8.4 billion annual impact on the seven surrounding counties producing an estimated 73,760 jobs. Estimates show the University City population exceeding 161,000 residents by 2010.

“This information gives government officials a clear picture as they decide on the future development of local infrastructure such as public transportation, schools, community safety agencies and recreational open spaces,” Michael explains. “The study serves to position and define the area and promote sustainable growth.”

If the Institute doesn’t have the talent in house to effectively analyze data, its access to university faculty for economic forecasting and graduate students for specialized studies is an invaluable link to available resources.

It’s not always about asking what an area is doing for the greater Charlotte region, but what the greater Charlotte region can do for an area.

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute recently received a $47,668 grant from the Foundation for the Carolinas’ Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Foundation to fund the North Tryon Corridor Community Assets Project. This project focuses on eight neighborhoods along North Tryon Street and Sugar Creek Road between University City and Uptown, some of the most ethnically and racially diverse areas of Charlotte.

“The study is designed to promote social trust, cross-cultural connectedness, civic engagement and overall community capacity,” according to “Urban Outreach,” the Institute’s quarterly newsletter.

“Our number one criterion for deciding where to focus our energies is whether or not a particular project serves the public,” Michael says. “One-third of our budget is subsidized by the state and our primary responsibility is serving the state’s citizens. This project is also about public investment. In this case, we need to decide as a region how we’re going to support this evolving community.”


Sustainable Growth

Regional growth used to be a black and white issue: should we or shouldn’t we? These days, the issue is not whether or not we should grow, but the consequences of that growth, Michael explains.

“I think everyone agrees that a laissez-faire approach to growth is a recipe for disaster,” Michael says. “There may be disagreements about the solutions to the consequences of growth, but one thing is for sure: We can’t sustain growth in the Charlotte region unless we develop the infrastructure that affects quality of life along with it.”

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute’s research capabilities put it in a prime position to lead discussions about managed growth. Although a great deal of data already exists through state and federal agencies, the Institute’s Geographical Information System (GIS) mapping capabilities allow for sophisticated land use studies.

“Most towns have outdated land use plans created in the ’70s, when neighborhood sprawl and strip malls were the trend,” Michael says. “That’s fine if that’s a town’s vision, but towns increasingly want something different, a plan that incorporates more quality of life features new residents seek.”

Today’s town visions include greenways, a diverse mix of home lot sizes and ways to tap into local resources such as eco-tourism. The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, along with the university’s College of Architecture, is set to begin a collaborative effort with the City of Mount Holly, near the site of the nation’s first man-made white water rafting park. Mount Holly is experiencing tremendous growth and wants a residential plan that preserves green spaces. In addition, they want a downtown revitalization plan that stays in line with its vision.

“Our first step will be helping city leaders determine and articulate that vision,” Michael says. “Once we understand their wants and needs, we can analyze the city’s current land use plan and decide whether it follows its strategic vision and strikes an economic balance as well.”

The Institute also provides land use and environmental planning research and services for businesses and nonprofit organizations. The Land Use and Environmental Planning department operates the Open Space Institute, which works with land conservation organizations to define and achieve a common vision for regional open space.

In addition, the Land Use and Environmental Planning department is examining underutilized policies and programs and discovering the barriers to their use. One such program currently being analyzed is tax increment financing. North Carolina is one of the last states in the country to allow tax increment financing, where a certain portion of tax revenue generated by a project is dedicated to improvements on that project.

“In the past, all tax revenue was funneled into the general coffers and its use was voted on by the city council,” Michael says. “This program offers a unique opportunity for developers and has been used successfully in other parts of the country for the past 15 years or so. But it’s not being used here and we need to figure out why not.”


High-Tech Help

When communities experience rapid growth, school systems need to grow right along with them. The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute established its School Services department to help school districts manage issues arising from growth and technological evolution.

Its major on-going project is a computerized school bus routing project called Transportation Information Management Systems.

“We serve districts throughout out western North Carolina,” says John Chesser, director of School Services. “We offer software implementation services, customized training and remote support services. Some days I work in six different counties without ever leaving my office.”

The department also provides school planning and demographic analysis, data that be used to head off educational pitfalls such as overcrowding.

Chesser and his team were recently called upon to assist St. Lucie Public Schools in Florida with its growing pains. Port St. Lucie was named the fastest growing large city in the United States by the Census Bureau in 2005 and St. Lucie County schools have seen annual enrollment increases as high as seven percent. In addition to the growth challenges the district faced, it was working from a student assignment plan that had been designed around court-supervised desegregation plans determined decades ago.

“We were happy to learn that the community and the school board were in agreement that some of the things they’ve been doing were no longer working,” Chesser says. “We were able to work with them to establish a new, more feasible student assignment plan. The process was all out in the open and attempted to include all of the community’s diverse groups.”

All this begs the question, could Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools benefit from the Institute’s services? Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a competent professional staff dedicated to these issues, Michael says. In addition, Michael and Chesser agree there are some community issues that have to be worked through before Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools can begin to resolve the growth issues it faces.

“There are some parallels to St. Lucie Public Schools, but it’s impossible to build a vision based on divergent objectives,” Chesser asserts. “The opposing groups all have valid concerns, but they need to find some common ground before the real work can begin.”

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute’s vision for the future involves becoming more proactive in its fact-finding role, perhaps through the development of a regular regional indicators packaging program. Michael points to The Boston Foundation as a program model.  

“My hope is that we can begin to regularly assess things, like economic well-being, the state of health care and environmental and educational health, and make the information accessible for public consumption,” Michael says. “That encourages discussion and helps resolve new challenges as they arise.”

So the next time you’re gathered around the water cooler hearing about what “they” say, you’ll know about the wealth of resources the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute brings to seeking solutions for the social, economic and environmental challenges in our community.

Lisa Hoffmann is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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