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August 2007
Steeped in Controversy...
By Ellison Clary

     So you think the half-cent sales tax debate is hot? Sure, but it’s in keeping with a strong local tradition, says Charlotte’s recently retired city manager.

     Pam Syfert has participated in the last 35 years of Queen City history, starting as a research assistant, working her way through the ranks and spending the last 11 years as Charlotte city manager.

     “Almost everything I’ve done in these 35 years has been steeped in controversy,” Syfert acknowledges quickly.

     Syfert categorizes controversy as one of four major “themes” she’s seen in her tenure; the others being the visionary leadership of business and political leaders, the spirit of progress that this fosters, and the willingness of Charlotte’s leaders to take risks for continued growth.

     Curt Walton, who was an assistant city manager under Syfert and has worked closely with her for years, took over as city manager on July 1, 2007.

     This morning, on her last day with the city, Syfert takes some time out to speak about her experience over the last decade. One of the things she feels strongly about is why she hopes the movement to repeal the half-cent sales tax that pays for light rail and better bus service is defeated on the fall ballot.

     Critics accuse her of scare tactics, but she defends her view that the city will have to make “Draconian cuts” without the tax. She asked her budget officer and finance director for impact numbers, she says, and she knows the results.

     “We’ll sit down and open our books to anybody,” Syfert says, with a view from her window of the light rail line the city plans to open between Uptown and Pineville this year.

     “If you think we’re fear mongering, let us show you the numbers,” she says. “What I’ve noticed is when we lay out facts that are truly just the numbers and the situation, some real consequences, immediately the name calling starts. Nobody jumps up and says, ‘Here’s why we say these facts are wrong.’ They say things that absolutely make no sense, like, ‘You’ll find the money someplace.’”

     Strongly as she feels about keeping the tax to finance mass transit—light rail and enhanced bus service—along five major corridors between the suburbs and Center City, Syfert can place the debate in perspective.

     “It’s just one of our times when we’re going through a lot of controversy and we’re going to have to live through it and keep moving forward with a spirit of progress,” she says.

     “We have a history of an ability to take our public facilities, build them, tear them down, build new ones and move on, because the one’s we built originally weren’t good enough or got outdated,” she says.

     A bond issue to expand what is now Charlotte-Douglas International Airport failed in the 1970s, but leadership resurrected it and got it passed, she recalls. Where would Charlotte be today without that airport, Syfert wonders.

     That same decade, Charlotteans fussed about where to build a convention center. Once built, within 10 years it was outdated. Bonds for the new convention center at College and Stonewall Streets failed twice before the city in 1991 finally issued $167 million in certificates of participation to finance it. The new Charlotte Convention Center has become a bulwark of the hospitality industry and is being expanded during construction of the NASCAR Hall of Fame next door, Syfert is quick to point out.

     Syfert moves on to the 1980s when the public debated strongly where to build the new Charlotte Coliseum. Charlotte had convinced the National Basketball League to give the city the Charlotte Hornets expansion franchise and the Coliseum was outdated in 10 years. The Hornets left for New Orleans. Just last month that Coliseum was imploded, the property to be used for a mixed-use facility that puts the 150 acres back into the tax base, along with the new structures that will grace them, Syfert observes.

     And, the recently built Charlotte Bobcats Arena, where the team that replaced the Charlotte Hornets plays, remains controversial. In a light turnout for a non-binding referendum, voters nixed an uptown facility. Syfert remembers a trip to New York to meet NBA owners and outline a different public-private financing plan for a new arena. “I came back thinking, ‘If we get an NBA team, we’re going to be dealing with a bunch of very interesting people,’” she recalls.

     One of Syfert’s favorite stories involves CityFair. The retail development at Fifth and College Streets near The Square was born of a partnership between the city and a private developer. Many people who attended an international conference of city managers toured the newly opened facility when they visited Charlotte in 1988. When the group returned in 2003, some remembered CityFair and wanted to see it again.

     “We told them that CityFair had opened, failed, been foreclosed on, been  resold and now the Hearst Tower is on the site,” she smiles.

     Nevertheless, Syfert believes all these projects reflect those themes of visionary leadership, a spirit of progress, and a willingness to take risks. “If we don’t get it right the first time with our public places and facilities, we will say ‘Okay, we need to make it better.’ We’re changing so fast, we need to make it better and we’ll tear it down and do it again.”

     She remembers when Charlotteans had the vision to renovate Spirit Square and to establish the Afro-American Cultural Center. Discovery Place, she recalls, almost didn’t open as scheduled in 1981 because of a shortage of construction funds. Rolfe Neill, then publisher of The Charlotte Observer, led a private drive to finish what has become a premiere science facility.

     That same spirit has transformed many of Charlotte’s residential areas, Syfert points out. “My real passion has been in housing and neighborhoods,” she adds.

     Fourth Ward made a metamorphosis from 1970s slum to today’s upscale center city gem. Genesis Park is the product of a public-private partnership that transformed a drug-infested dead end into a successful mixed-income neighborhood. The city participated in these two projects and many other instances of Charlotte paying attention to housing rehabilitation, she says.

     During her 35 years, Syfert says, “We’ve had six bond referendums, raising $110 million to invest and reinvest in neighborhoods that need some help.”

Rising Up the Ranks

     Charlotte’s first woman city manager, Syfert says she’s never thought much about whether her gender affected her career path. That’s because of the “balanced” way her parents, E.A. and Ruth Pulliam, brought her up on a farm near Freemont, Nebraska. Her father pushed her into typical barnyard chores while her mother took her to piano lessons.

     After earning a bachelor’s in political science and history at Cornell College in Iowa, she completed her master’s in Political Science at Michigan State University. While there, she was influenced by Charles Adrian, a professor and author of books on local government and politics.

     She and her ex-husband moved here in 1968 when he got a job teaching at what is now Queens University of Charlotte. Syfert stayed home with young son Scott until signing on with the Model Cities Program in 1972. From there, she joined the city budget department and found great satisfaction in evaluating how well the city delivered services and how effectively it spent taxpayer money.

     “It’s been an abiding passion my whole career,” she says.

      Soon she was evaluation supervisor; then assistant budget and evaluation director; then budget and evaluation director. She advanced to assistant city manager in 1987 and later deputy city manager. When former city manager Wendell White retired in 1996, she was appointed interim city manager while city council searched nationally for a permanent executive. The ultimate choice was Syfert.

     Other mentors have been two of her bosses. For several years, she followed Tom Finney as he made his way up the city administration ladder, ultimately leaving his post as deputy city manager in 1989 to serve as city manager of Springfield, Missouri. The red roses adorning her desk on her last day are from Finney, now retired.

     “Tom really cared about people who worked for him,” Syfert says. “He wanted them to develop; he gave them lots of credit.”

     From White, she learned to appreciate her employees. “Wendell had a really positive feeling that people want to do good jobs, they want to be successful and that the people who are not like that are a small minority,” she says.

     Syfert hopes she’s remembered for her informed decisions: “I would make sure I had done all my homework, and that I had talked to lots of people and got different ideas and different perspectives. But then I was always willing to make a decision—and deliver that decision and be accountable for it, whether it was a good decision or a bad decision. The way to define my management style is to be accountable.”

    Her advice to Walton, her successor, is  to continue being a good listener and team builder and “pay a lot of attention to growth issues.”

 

Where Charlotte’s Heading

    Syfert likes to compare the Charlotte of 1972, when she signed on, to today’s Charlotte. The population was 250,000 then and 650,000 now. The city budget was $48 million compared to today’s $1.6 billion.

    In the next 10 to 15 years, she says the planning staff has predicted that Charlotte will absorb enough additional people to populate Cincinnati, essentially doubling in size.

   “My fear,” she adds, “is that the transit plan gets stalled. It would be a catastrophe. The challenge is trying to make people understand what a short-sighted decision that would be.”

    Syfert, who turns 65 this fall, will stay in her Dilworth home and see more of lawyer son Scott, daughter-in-law Gail and grandchildren Harrison and Madison. “I plan to take one big trip a year and lots of little trips,” she says.

    “I have no plans to do any consulting,” she says firmly. “I’m truly done working.”

    She has agreed to join the board of POST, or Partners in Out-of-School Time, an organization that helps children fill non-class hours productively.

    One more thing…“I’m going to get involved with promoting the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence,” she says. “When you look at what happened 200 years ago, 26 civic leaders gathered on The Square after the British shot the colonists at Lexington.” (The Massachusetts skirmish happened on April 19, 1775. The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence supposedly was signed May 20, 1775, but the document is not known to exist today.)

   “Whether it  really happened, or people just think it happened,” Syfert says, “it’s the spirit  of the founding of our community that we ought to celebrate. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the history of those people years ago who were willing to take risks for  their community.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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