Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Envy And Facility Addiction

It is in common use there now, but the first time I heard the phrase that “Raleigh has Charlotte-envy” it was used in an op-ed by a Raleigh publishing entrepreneur.

And he wasn’t referring to the popular massage franchise.  It was obviously a pejorative relating to North Carolina's two largest cities.

Similarly, Charlotte is said to have Atlanta-envy and Atlanta, well, let’s just say the reference is used to describe communities with a penchant for building facilities that make them resemble other communities at the expense of being less distinctive.

Overall, Durham, NC where I live has resisted that route but over the last two decades that resolve has been gradually undermined by forces  who are facility-driven, some external, some internal.

At stake is a distinct cultural identity and unique sense of place.  Being facility-driven is a slippery slope and Durham is well advised to learn from communities that are.

Many people trace Charlotte’s infatuation with facilities to 1959 and construction of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, which is actually in Concord, North Carolina.  Being overreaching seems be a side effect of having facility addiction.

But the earliest seeds of this addiction there may have been planted when that community’s first convention center, a 1911 private venture, failed and the city agreed to bail it out the owners.

Ironically, this first taste of Charlotte facility addition occurred just as the Olmstead Brothers (NYC Central Park) were laying out part of the Dilworth neighborhood, one of my favorites to visit and a remnant of which stands as a monument to when Charlotte valued more sense of place.

Contrary to a popular perception, I don’t think Charlotte was responsible for the misleading nomenclature for the speedway nor was it due to any infatuation by the founders.

Dating back to 1924, Charlotte had been the geographic home to a number of speedways including one that was called the Charlotte Speedway and another named the Charlotte Motor Speedway.  Ironically, the earliest races had been Indy cars.

When today’s Charlotte Motor Speedway was erected in 1959 in Concord, one of the partners was a racer and the other a car salesman who promoted races back then at two short-tracks including the old Southern States Fairgrounds Speedway at the Charlotte Fairgrounds.

Another was the Concord Speedway in South Concord which still exists approximately midway between the cotton farm where he had been raised and his new speedway.

Therefore, the name Concord Speedway wasn’t available.  But a few years earlier, the name Charlotte Motor Speedway had become available when the old track in Charlotte had been converted to a junk yard.

Simply put, the name was available and no truth in addressing was required, a registration loophole that still fosters ambiguity in far too many locations even today.

This period of name/location convolution and being viewed as a bedroom community for a namesake track may also be the genius of Charlotte identity issues that persist today.

But that city’s fascination with “coliseums” had begun with the opening of the “original” Charlotte Coliseum in 1955, now known as Bojangles Coliseum.

The “original” was supplanted by the “old” version in 1988, a facility that would be replaced and demolished before it was paid for by yet a newer facility which opened in 2005.  Each has been inhabited by a revolving door of pro basketball teams.

The “original” venue was populated by the Carolina Cougars of the American Basketball Association which was purchased in 1969 and moved to Greensboro, NC from New Orleans by a former North Carolina Congressman and unsuccessful Gubernatorial candidate.

Interestingly enough, according to the founder, he had won the then-fledgling Greenville, NC-born Hardees, now the nation’s fifth largest fast food chain, in a poker game less than a decade earlier.

The ABA experimented with “regional” venues that rotated home games to several cities.  In addition to Greensboro, the team played in Charlotte and Raleigh with even a few games in Winston-Salem.  Charlotte pressed for more games but Greensboro had the more active fan base.

The Cougars and the rotation idea weren’t that successful and new owners moved the team to St. Louis in 1974 where the team was not included in a merger with the NBA in 1976.

But Charlotte had caught facility fever and opened a new convention center just as the Cougars departed.  Maybe it isn’t coincidence that this was also when the Dilworth neighborhood began to fight for its life, just as the now highly coveted neighborhood does today as a five-story hotel is planned in its midst.

Within a decade of losing the Cougars and opening the convention center, Charlotte had built a new coliseum and community leaders secured an NBA franchise.  They also compulsively began agitating for a new convention center to keep pace with other cities.

Within another decade, their basketball team relocated to New Orleans (just desserts I suppose,) over a dispute for newer yet arena.  Soon after in through the revolving door came a new convention center and an NFL expansion team, the Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers privately financed their new stadium but leveraging $55 million in public sector contributions to secure the land and provide infrastructure improvements.  Otherwise it may have been built out across the county line from the Concord-base Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The team had been awarded to Charlotte but the owners pitched the team as a “Carolinas” team.  Regional names or slogans are now used as a means to try and fend off future teams in nearby cities or states or shun them as the Durham Bulls have by claiming to be “The Triangle’s Team.”

Charotteans were incensed the first year of play in Charlotte when the coach of the Dallas Cowboys couldn’t say for sure where the Panthers played (was it North or South Carolina where the team played its first season?) but there was nothing in the name of the stadium or the team to give him a hint.

It is unfortunate for host cities when denied the ability to fully leverage the advantages of identity with sports teams and facilities.  But it is a much larger price when communities become facility-driven.

The condition is irreversible as is the toll it takes when public resources are shackled away from being able to truly foster a community’s distinctiveness and sense of place which in the long run reaps far greater returns.

Facilities and sense of place work best when the former is kept in check and carefully calibrated to enhance the distinctiveness of a community.  Reverse the priority and communities lose their soul as well as any sense of perspective and proportion.

In the decade after Charlotte opened its mega-convention center, attendance at meetings nationwide dropped by another third, a long term trend.  Yet a decade after it opened, a newspaper headline there quipped, “convention center half empty, officials propose expansion.”

Charlotte’s other cultural facilities have also not been immune to the churn of facility addiction, often becoming pawns between development schemes.  Like any addiction, one for facilities becomes a furious, insatiable spiral with each fix demanding another and another.

Communities addicted to facilities also become event driven, using public dollars to “buy” events to create the illusion of activity masked by the use of metrics that gross up but fail to net out impact making it nearly impossible for the general public or news media to see that these subsides rarely return enough to cover the subsidy.

This is not due to a cover up.  Models don’t factor in the dislocation of existing activity or even many leakages.  Even when carefully calibrated to day-trip vs. overnight activity they don’t dig deep enough to account for in-kind public sector expenses such as security and sold waste.

Officials would rather explain an event subsidy that an operational deficit and local government accounting by its nature is not full-cost accounting, making it impossible to connect the dots.

The importance of distinctiveness and unique sense of place have only become more fully understand in the last decade.  For communities where it isn’t too late, they should be given full consideration in lieu of becoming facility addicted.

Often it comes down to whether a community is comfortable in its own skin.  Durham, which is, cannot afford to be too smug.

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