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Monday, March 22, 2010

Charlotte Trumps Atlanta? No Way! Lacks Real Diversity & Small-Minded

Atlanta Hears Charlotte's Footsteps Gaining?

Seems Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed a bit worried that Charlotte may be gaining on "Hotlanta".

Reed apparently told the Hungry Club (a civic discussion group at the Butler Street YMCA) that Atlanta's in danger of falling behind Charlotte if Atlanta and the State of Georgia doesn't make strides on Transportation, Education, Water and The Fine Arts.

All this is from the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Jim Galloway and his Blog: Political Insider.

Reed also noted that the N.C. Piedmont got some big chunks of Federal High-Speed Rail money, and Atlanta didn't.

For more fun, read the comments on Galloway's blog, e.g.:

"Not that Atlanta’s a model city, but I’ve been to Charlotte many times and it’s boring as hell. It may be on the rise, but there’s nothing interesting about Charlotte either historically or culturally."

Charlotte Who? Mayor Kasim Reed Says Atlanta Is Still On Top!

Pay no attention to those footsteps. Atlanta is still the capital of the South, Mayor Kasim Reed said Wednesday at a meeting of the Hungry Club.

Reed conceded that Charlotte has made gains – especially in the realm of high-speed rail. In January, North Carolina’s commercial center received a $545 million slice of federal stimulus money for rail.

“They had a good day,” the mayor said, according to my AJC colleague Eric Stirgus.

Meanwhile, Atlanta got chump change, and then saw its application for federal funding of a downtown streetcar system rejected.

But laying braggadocio aside, Reed said Atlanta was, in fact, in danger falling behind Charlotte if the city and state don’t make strides on transportation, education, water and the arts.

Reed compared the situation to the early 1960s when Birmingham was the southern leader in commerce, but lost that title to Atlanta because of its attitude on civil rights. See: Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Birmingham police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor.

Atlanta, the mayor noted, was more progressive. “Birmingham has never caught up since,” Reed said.

You have to wonder if the mayor hasn’t been spending some quality time with former Gov. Roy Barnes. Because that’s one of his favorite lines.

Ex-Bobcats Owner Blasts Charlotte

Days after selling the Charlotte Bobcats, Bob Johnson called Charlotte's business community "arrogant" and "incestuous" and said the city doesn't do enough for existing and potential minority-owned business.

Johnson, a self-made billionaire who started the Black Entertainment Television cable network and brought the Bobcats to Charlotte, made the remarks Saturday at the Urban Leadership Institute, a gathering of mostly black business people.

The group presented Johnson with an award moments before he spoke, though the crowd's reaction was mixed after he made his comments:

"Charlotte is a very, how would I call it, close-knit, arrogant, sometimes incestuous town".

"...It's close-knit, and if you come to this town, and you look like you're one of those people that might break some glass ... it's going to be tough for them to relate to".

"The thing that concerns me is that I'm just surprised that the city doesn't do more for African-American Small Businesses. And I don't really understand that."

But Mayor Anthony Foxx (Charlotte's Token 2nd Black Mayor) said later that the city's business climate toward minorities is improving.

"It's becoming increasingly clear that our city's leadership base is broadening,"Foxx said. "What used to be a small group of people leading a large population is now becoming a larger group of people leading even a larger population. Just by nature of the fact that there are more voices at the table. I think you'll see a lot of opportunities emerge."

Johnson has criticized Charlotte's business community before. Two years ago, in an interview with the Observer, he said Charlotte's business community wasn't doing enough to support the expansion team.

"I am absolutely concerned," Johnson told the Observer in April 2008. "I am doing everything I can to make this team work, including writing a lot of checks."

But some people in the community, including members of the City Council, have said he was not visible enough during his tenure as Bobcats owner. Support for the team lagged, the council members said, because of its poor record.

Johnson didn't speak with reporters after his remarks.

"I am surprised at the number of people ... that come to me looking for financial backing that they haven't been able to find in the business community," he said. "I'm surprised that there aren't more substantial alliances between larger white businesses and minority-owned businesses."

He said the owners of No Grease, a group of barber shops owned by the head of the Urban Business Network, had a well-run business and a good plan for growth, but weren't able to find funding.

He added that the onus to improve the climate was also on the black community. "I think what is needed is a little bit more aggressiveness on the part of the African-American community."

Foxx, who spoke to the crowd shortly before Johnson, cited a commission that is examining small business opportunities in Charlotte as evidence of progress.

"I haven't been in every meeting or every social situation or every board table that Bob Johnson's been to, so I can't speak to his experience, only he can," said Foxx. "I can't refute what someone else believes other than to state what I believe, and what I believe is this: this city is more than capable of being an embracing place for minority business owners."

Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, said he did not want to talk about Johnson's comments, saying only that "I think Charlotte owes Bob Johnson a debt of gratitude for bringing the NBA back to Charlotte."

Charlotte Schools Block Black Kids From Attending AP Classes

Students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg's high-poverty schools face an "opportunity gap" in access to college-level classes, says a report from a citizen advisory panel being presented today.

Students at several low-poverty suburban schools can choose from more than 20 Advanced Placement subjects this school year, while students at four high-poverty schools have fewer than 10, the report says.

The Equity Committee, appointed by the school board, spent the past year looking at Advanced Placement along with services for students who don't speak English well. The recommendations, designed to boost equal opportunity, are likely to clash with budget-cutting plans.

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For instance, the panel recommends that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools do more to increase AP offerings at the high-poverty schools, where most students are Black or Hispanic. The panel also calls for more minority enrollment in AP courses at all schools. But a consultant advising CMS on the likelihood of budget cuts for 2010-11 has suggested cutting some AP classes with low enrollment to focus on boosting basic skills.

"We're just in challenging times right now," said board Vice Chair Tom Tate. "I think that the board is going to have some pretty interesting debate on this."

AP Challenge

AP offerings range from 25 subjects at South Mecklenburg High to seven at Waddell, the report says. Even at schools such as Mallard Creek High and Northwest School of the Arts, which have large numbers of middle-class black students, AP classes are disproportionately white.

Taking AP classes can help students get into competitive universities, and students who earn high scores on the exams can get college credit. "The lack of a diverse range of core and elective AP courses at all schools raises serious equity concerns," the report says.

CMS offers other college-level options, including classes hosted by Central Piedmont Community College and advanced classes in International Baccalaureate magnets. The report did not look at those.

High-poverty high schools tend to have lower enrollments and more students struggling to meet graduation requirements, both of which can make it challenging to fill AP classes. For instance, Waddell offered 10 options on its "enrollment card" last winter but ended up only teaching seven, the report says.

But those schools also have successful college-bound students. The equity panel recommends offering a set number of AP courses at each school, even if enrollment is low, and urges schools to "actively recruit and place students in those courses."

The report says white students make up 37 percent of CMS's high-school students but account for 62 percent those taking of AP exams. Minority students may be hindered by home support, peer culture or low expectations in lower grades, the report says. Recommendations range from recruiting AP teachers "of various ethnic backgrounds" to "cluster(ing) students of racial groups in AP courses in order to provide peer support."

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Language Barrier

On students with limited English skills, the report notes that some schools have so many that students may not be immersed in spoken English, while others have so few that it's tough to provide adequate staff support for kids and families.

CMS has eliminated jobs for bilingual parent advocates, even as the number of students whose families speak Spanish and other languages has grown. The committee recommends restoring those jobs at schools with large numbers of families who need translation, noting that parent involvement is essential to student success.

The report describes a visit to Merry Oaks Elementary, where 19 languages are spoken, most children come from low-income homes, and some students "not only don't speak English but may not have any experience with indoor bathrooms or electricity." Committee members saw a woman arrive to enroll a young child, who did most of the translating between his mother and the school secretary. Two hours later, the child and his mother "were still trying to navigate the enrollment process," it says.

The report urges CMS to make sure schools make better use of available translation services and make it easier for families without cars to get to the Family Application Center south of uptown, where international students must register. City buses used to run along that road, the report says, but no longer do.

City Of Charlotte Wins Fast-Train Funds

Federal railroad officials plan to spend more than $100 million to create a railroad superhighway through Charlotte.

The money will build a bridge and redesign tracks downtown, clearing the way for both high-speed passenger rail and a future CATS commuter rail line. Plus, it will uncork the path for freight trains.

“It’s a win, win, win,” said Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, “not only for Charlotte but the entire state.”

The grant comes from stimulus money approved by Congress to start building a national high-speed passenger rail network.

The projects are part of a broader effort to expand to accommodate faster and more frequent trains between Charlotte and Raleigh.

They include buying real estate for a future high-speed rail maintenance shop on the south side of Bank of America Stadium.

State officials are unsure when construction will begin.

The funding is part of a half-billion-dollar high-speed rail grant to North Carolina announced last week that also includes money to add a second line of track between Charlotte and Greensboro, speeding up both passenger and freight service.

“These are leading-edge projects that are planning for the future,” said Patrick Simmons, director of the state’s rail division.

The overall pot of $545 million will pay to straighten curved tracks, add double tracks and build bridges to separate train and automobile traffic at points across the state. By 2015, officials plan to raise top train speeds from the current 79 mph to 90 mph. The federal money will also pay to upgrade stations and expand the state’s fleet of locomotives and rail cars, including an additional daily train between Raleigh and Charlotte.

Simmons identified the downtown Charlotte project on Friday. State officials had refrained from highlighting the specific projects to be funded, as they are still clarifying details of the grant with officials in Washington.

The $100 million-plus will pay to untie a knot of intersecting tracks underneath the Brookshire Freeway, next to the ADM mill at 10th and Smith streets. Norfolk Southern’s north-south lines intersect with CSX’s east-west tracks, creating the railroad version of a congested four-way stop. Trains have to wait on each other before going through, burning up fuel and time.

The federal money will pay to lower the east-west tracks across town, including at that big intersection, so those trains travel through a trench. The plans also call for building a bridge over the trench for the north-south tracks at the current four-way-stop. That will keep trains moving constantly in both directions, but it also:

Modernizes north-south tracks so they can carry high speed trains.

Allows space on the proposed bridge for a future CATS light-rail line.

Clears up train traffic so freight trains can easily reach a planned transportation center next to the airport where freight will be transferred between trains and trucks.

Foxx described the changes funded by the federal grant as laying a foundation for a transportation system that will allow business and the region as a whole to expand.

“The synergies between this high-speed rail investment and the intermodal project out at our airport are positioning our city and our state very well for economic growth,” he said, “which is exactly what we need right now.”

Ronnie Bryant, president of the Charlotte Regional Partnership economic development group, said the train expansion helps both environmentally, by providing alternatives to driving, and economically, by improving the flow of people and goods through the area.

“This is a definite shot in the arm for us,” Bryant said. “From a regional perspective it helps us continue to develop our public transportation arteries.”

The state has bought some pieces of land and now will have the money to finish acquisitions for a “gateway” station to be built between the stadium and Brookshire Freeway. It would serve as a hub for CATS and Greyhound buses, light rail, downtown trolley and future high-speed trains.

The state also can finish land purchases for a maintenance shop for the high=speed locomotives across the railroad track from Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, south of the stadium and west of Mint Street.

Simmons described the projects as “a great first step forward.”

Charlotte Citizens Protest Against Charlotte Affordable
Housing Project

The meeting started inside while people were still lining up outside. Hundreds showed up to hear more about a proposed public housing complex in the Ballantyne area. One by one, they fired questions and comments at the developers, Republic Development Group:

"What experience do you have creating something like this?"

"Can you not find a more suitable place than what is the southern gateway to our community?"

"Where I'm coming from is I don't want it here. My house is over one million dollars and I don't want the crap next to me."

The project took a hit Monday afternoon when the Charlotte Housing Authority issued a statement that it would not participate in the mixed income housing development. "Questions about certain aspects of the project's structure, including its density (the total number of apartment units relative to the cost of the land) and funding, prompted our decision," said Jennifer Gallman with the Housing Authority.

"We keep going," said Stuart Proffitt of Republic Development. Proffitt says he still hopes to build the 86 unit complex with another affordable housing developer. A representative from the Crosland Company told News Channel 36 the developer has asked if Crosland would manage the property if it were approved.

One man, who asked not to be identified, said he believed this was a case of "not in my backyard." "I live on the West side and this will be pushed to some other part of town," he said.

But opponents say that's not the case. They point to the fact that the proposed site, south of Ballantyne, off of Johnston Road, has no easy access to public sidewalks, little public transportation and already overcrowded schools.

Cynthia Jennings lives in the Ballantyne area. "People who live in low income housing want the same thing we all do. A nice place to live for their families. But the way the developer came in, through the back door, was sneaky and shady," she said.

Charlotte Leaders Pull Out Of Ballantyne Affordable Housing Deal

The Charlotte Housing Authority pulled out of a controversial public housing project for Ballantyne Monday, but the other developers of the project said the 86-unit apartment complex for low-income residents will continue.

The authority said it dropped the project at Johnston Road and Providence Road West because of concerns about its cost, which could be as much as $13 million.

But its decision comes after two weeks of intense opposition from many Ballantyne residents, who are objecting to what would be the area's first subsidized housing for low-income tenants.

The authority had partnered with Republic Development Group, a newly formed company that was seeking a rezoning change to make the apartment project possible.

"I don't know why they (CHA) aren't doing this," said Stuart Proffitt, part of Republic's two-person team. "I was surprised."

At a meeting Monday night with angry Ballantyne residents, Proffitt said he is seeking other partners with affordable housing experience to build the apartments, known as Ballancroft.

The loss of the authority as a partner means that 26 of the apartments that were to be reserved for people earning 30 percent of the area's median income won't also receive assistance from the federal government, Proffitt said.

A family of four earning just under $20,000 would qualify for those apartments.

Proffitt said that would be the only change to the complex. The rest of the units would be reserved for people earning 60 percent of the area's median income.

He declined to say who also might work on the apartments. Republic doesn't have the necessary experience to secure federal tax credits to make the project possible, he said.

Proffitt and his partner John Schwaller have an option to buy the 7-acre site at the southwest corner of the intersection. The land is currently zoned for offices. They want it rezoned for a neighborhood services designation, which would allow the apartments adjacent to a proposed bank.

If they don't receive the tax credits, they said the project could be built for residents who would pay market rates.

The Housing Authority issued a one-page press release Monday afternoon dropping out of the project. CHA spokesperson Jennifer Gallman said the authority has to balance the needs of providing as much housing as it can, along with the cost of doing so.

"Questions about certain aspects of the projects structure, including its density (the total number of apartment units relative to the cost of the land) and funding, prompted our decision," the release said.

On Friday, the authority had restated its commitment to the project. It said it was important to bring affordable housing to Ballantyne so low-income workers could live near where they work.

Mayor Anthony Foxx said he wanted to know why the authority dropped the effort. He said he was not familiar with all the details of the proposal because it had not yet come before City Council. He said dispersing affordable housing remains a priority.

Four years ago, the city codified its long-standing policy about spreading public housing throughout the city. Much of the city is now considered "prohibited" for new public housing because of low home ownership rates or existing subsidized complexes. Ballantyne is considered a "priority" for subsidized housing.

The plans for the 86 apartments drew roughly 300 people to a two-hour meeting Monday at Harrison United Methodist Church.

The meeting was punctuated with residents heckling the developers and cheering when they were grilled by neighbors.

Proffitt said that state law doesn't allow them to discuss the income levels of potential residents. He said his rezoning request should be scrutinized on how it will impact land use.

Residents then asked questions about the impact on schools and traffic. They also questioned whether there were enough sidewalks for residents. They also said the site is too far from mass transit.

"You say there will be strong access to transit. I just don't see that," Ballantyne resident Al Rutherford said.

Joel Stolz said he thought there would be more than 200 hundred students generated from the project - not the 20 public-school age children that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools projected.

Proffitt and Schwaller said the complex is expensive in part because they want it to blend in with the surrounding community.

There were some questions that dealt directly about the low-income residents.

One resident who didn't give his name said he didn't want public housing next to his million-dollar home

Another resident, Kevin Williams, said that's not why most people are against the rezoning.

"This isn't a NIMBY issue....We are angry about the rezoning," Williams said. "It's a 45-minute walk from your site to the bus stop."

The developers said they expect mass transit to serve the area eventually.

They also said a number of low-income residents have cars, and people who depend on buses won't choose to live there.

Residents also asked the developers about their contract with the authority, which was to pay them $20,000 to handle the rezoning costs and up to $50,000 if it were successful.

Proffitt and Schwaller said they aren't going to pay back the $20,000 after residents asked if they would.

Another resident asked Schwaller about his previous relationship with Ben Collins, who works at the authority. Collins and Schwaller had partnered two years ago to work on a real estate project in Cornelius, but that project fell through, Schwaller said.

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Sources:, McClatchy Newspapers, Charlotte Observer, WRAL, Youtube, Google Maps

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