Monday, November 21, 2011

Charlotte area snags $5 million regional grant

Rebecca Yarbrough of Centralina COG, with check
It was just a bit of horseplay at Monday morning's announcement that the 14-county Charlotte region won a $4.9 million federal grant for sustainability planning. But it was a metaphor for one of the historic hurdles that the initiative may at last be able to overcome.

As always a Big Fake Check was on display for photo opps, and after the ceremonial presentation, Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon made a jokingly fake attempt to stash the $5 million check in his coat pocket.  Martha Sue Hall, the Albemarle City Council member who chairs the Centralina Council of Governments, the lead agency that pulled together the grant application, wrestled the big check out of Cannon's grasp. Everyone laughed at the light moment.

But of course, even if inadvertently, it exemplified the fear communities outside Charlotte have: that the region's big city will take most of the pie, leaving smaller places with just a few crumbs. [Never mind that on a per capita basis, many state and federal expenditures give large urban areas short shrift.] That fear, and the lack of trust that resources will be shared judiciously rather than snatched and hoarded, is one of many dynamics that make attempts at regionalism tough, no matter where you are. My article last week for, "Regionalism: Wonky but Real," explores the issue of urban regions more thoroughly. A longer version, with more Charlotte and N.C. information, ran on the website of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, where I work, (That site is down for tinkering today and tomorrow. Check it out later this week.)

The grant dwarfs the $1.6 million each won last year by two other N.C. regions, the Piedmont Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point) and the Asheville-area Land of the Sky. Other N.C. grant winners announced Monday were the Wilmington region, $1.1 million, and the City of High Point, $240,000 for a new downtown plan. The only larger grants than Charlotte's announced Monday were $4.9 million to the San Francisco Bay area and $5 million to a 13-county area in northern New Jersey.

Unless you're a regional planner, by now your eyes are probably glazing over at the idea of a "regional plan" among 10 N.C. and 4 S.C. counties. It all probably seems remote from what you do every day. But it isn't. Think about it. Throughout the Charlotte region people routinely cross city, county and state lines in the Charlotte region. We all drink water from rivers that flow through many jurisdictions and that sometimes hold cities' treated waste water. The air we breathe flows invisibly (we hope!) across the landscape. People live in one place and work in another if they are lucky enough to have jobs.

In other words, plenty of things that affect all of us daily jobs, our water and air, farmland preservation, traffic congestion and the availability, or not, of transit or walkable/bikable routes – need to be approached regionally, not city council by city council or county board by county board.

The grant won't solve all those problems of course. But the intent is to build on some work that started in 2007, which you probably never heard about. A 17-county bi-state group began hashing out a series of regional goals in the areas of economic development, the environment, growth, education, and so on. They include aiming for well-managed growth; for improving air and water quality and protecting wildlife, trees and rural areas; for improving social equity and inclusion, for collaborative approaches to economic development; for collaboration on educational initiatives, etc.

Those goals are laudable, but essentially they are just the result of a lot of conversations among a lot of people over several years, i.e., not backed by specific data. The grant will translate that large vision into an implementable plan, using yet-to-be-devised performance metrics. In other words, as the COG's Rebecca Yarbrough put it, they're now switching from anecdotal evidence to getting metrics for what represents sustainable growth for the whole region. It isn't implementing anything, but trying to continue the difficult work of getting a lot of different people with different interests to pull together on common goals, using commonly shared and trusted information.

The grant is from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, a partnership among HUD, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation. The partnership works to get the three branches of the U.S. government to working together instead of, as sometimes happens, at cross purposes.

(Disclosure: The the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, where I work, is a partner in the grant, and will get $179,000 for research to provide those metrics. The UNCC Metropolitan Studies program, which houses the institute, will get $253,000 for a regional affordable housing market study. The UNCC Urban Design Program in the School of Architecture will get $46,000 to help provide urban design guidance to the plan.)

More than 100 public and private sector partners will work on the process, but the core partners on the grant are: the Catawba Regional Council of Governments, UNC Charlotte, The Lee Institute, Urban Land Institute, Mecklenburg County CONNECT council, City of Charlotte CONNECT council, Charlotte Housing Authority, Regional Workforce Alliance, Charlotte Regional Partnership CONNECT council, Johnson C. Smith University and Winthrop University.


Anonymous said...

Shocking? Not really. Anything to buy 2012 votes in Charlotte. Unless and until there is a binding agreement between all of these disparate jurisdictions that requires them to actually put their own interests aside in favor of some agreed upon 'greater good', no money should be awarded or spent for such a study or studies. The list of "core partners" (like UNCC where you work Mary) is the same list of usual suspects that, individually and collectively, have no real decision making power but always have their hands out for 'free' money. I suppose it's great to support the world of planners ( BTW, when was the last time that anyone saw any real planning in Charlotte?) and to pay back political allies but it will do little if any measurable good unless the governments agree on a direction and consequences for not following through even before they know what such a study or studies turns out to say. Think that's likely to happen? Exactly.

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