CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If Whole Foods were to sell a city, the proposal might look like how local booster Dan Murrey pitches Charlotte. In Murrey’s telling, this business-savvy city has the soul of a nonprofit, built around diversity, renewables and do-gooders. Charlotte may be more commonly known as the “Wall Street of the South,” but to Murrey, it’s more like Mayberry 2.0.
Charlotte is not just a city, Murrey says, it’s a “really great story.”
“It is a very healthy community that really comes together and rallies around solving its own problems,” Murrey says. “It’s not that Charlotte is free of problems, or that it tries to sweep them under the rug. To the contrary. We have a history of really coming together and pitching in.”
Last spring, Murrey became the executive director of the 2012 Democratic National Convention’s host committee. His job: sell Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city.
Like Murrey, Mayor Anthony Foxx (D) talks of Charlotte as a city that has overcome challenges. “We’re a great new American city,” Foxx says. “We’re a city that has literally pulled itself up by its bootstraps.”
Everyone with a convention lanyard or press pass will hear some variation of this Hands-Across-Charlotte tale when they arrive in September. It is already being told and retold on the city’s convention website through videos, blogs, press releases, posters and commemorative BPA-free aluminum water bottles.
In an emailed statement explaining why the Democratic National Convention committee chose Charlotte as host city, committee CEO Steve Kerrigan played up modern facilities, its “compact center” and easy traffic. He calls Charlotte a “dynamic, diverse and vibrant community that reflects America in the 21st century.”
The selection of Charlotte was strategic as well, Kerrigan added. President Barack Obama won North Carolina by 14,000 votes in 2008. The convention may help the president hold onto the state in November.
Whatever the considerations in the choice, a lot about Charlotte goes unmentioned: double-digit unemployment, overflowing homeless shelters and North Carolina’s notoriousrestrictions on labor unions.
Although unions are participating in the convention, more than a dozen unions have announced a boycott of the event. “We find it troubling that the party so closely associated with basic human rights would choose a state with the lowest unionization rate in the country due to regressive policies aimed at diluting the power of workers,” wrote Mark Ayers, president of the building trades unit, to DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz last summer.
Even in the age of Occupy Wall Street, Charlotte boosters say they see little irony in Obama taking the podium to accept his party’s nomination at Bank of America Stadium.
A BANK TOWN
Bank of America Corp., whose power is symbolized by its iconic glass tower in Uptown, played a major part in the financial-services boom that helped bring Charlotte into the 21st century. Yet the second-largest U.S. bank suffers well-known problems, from its $45 billion bailout during the financial crisis to its deep exposure in the foreclosure mess.
BofA also ignited a backlash in the fall when it tried to impose a $5 monthly debit-card fee on its customers. Even Obama blasted the fee, telling ABC News, “You don’t have some inherent right just to, you know, get a certain amount of profit, if your customers are being mistreated.”
In 2008, then-candidate Obama moved his speech from Denver’s indoor Pepsi Center to the outdoor Invesco Field, named for a relatively unknown investment company. This year, the decision to go outside was made for the same reason — to accommodate thousands more supporters. Unfortunately for Democrats, people have heard of Bank of America.
When the president takes to the podium at the field named for BofA, it ought to be “a moment of mild embarrassment” for his party, says U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, a Tar Heel Democrat.
“There’ll probably be a night of wincing,” Miller says. “One of the Obama administration’s greatest vulnerabilities is that they have been seen, correctly, as too inclined to accommodate the banks.”
Although the president criticized Bank of America during the debit-card fiasco, some of his supporters in Charlotte defend BoA. “We’ve got a great working relationship with the bank,” Murrey says. “We’re very proud of the affiliation.” During the uproar last fall, Foxx told WBTV that he didn’t get why people slammed the bank over the debit-card fee. He added: “People who live in this community know how generous our financial institutions have been.”
The mayor also says he sees no symbolic significance to Obama accepting his nomination at Bank of America Stadium. “Look, I don’t think that matters,” he tells HuffPost. “We’ve got a great football stadium. We’re going to have a great night there.”
A Bank of America representative declined to comment.
While the stadium crowd may enjoy their night — and the bank has had a resurgent 2012 so far, with shares up 59 percent this year — the city will still be struggling to close gaps in its social safety net.
FAMILY HOMELESSNESS SURGES
Sheron Young, 39, and her four children are trying not to fall through the gaps. In mid-February, they moved from Georgia so Young could attend Johnson & Wales University, a famed culinary and hospitality school prized among Charlotte boosters since its move to Uptown in 2004. City leaders say the school has helped ignite a vibrant restaurant scene by attracting and retaining talented chefs.
Young hoped to be one of them. “It’s been my dream, like, since I was about 10 years old,” she says. She says she hoped following that dream could serve as an inspiration to her children, aged 4 to 18.
The Young family moved in with one of Sheron’s cousins, but four days later, the cousin was evicted. Young and her children spent two weeks at a hotel before they ran out of money. “Everything wasn’t going as planned,” says Sheron’s son Justin, 17.
Young has put school on hold. She hopes to re-enroll in the fall. The family was forced to move into the Salvation Army’s women and children’s shelter. Instead of taking classes on French sauces, she and her 18-year-old daughter, Chamir, rotate between watching 4-year-old Joy and applying for jobs.
During the boom years, Charlotte’s rise as a New South mecca created a thriving downtown, but the financial downturn has hit hard. In 2010, Charlotte saw a 36-percent jump in family homelessness. There was an additional 21-percent increase the following year, according to report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a nonpartisan policy group that includes mayors of large and mid-sized cities.
“We were seeing it, there is no question,” says Darren Ash, executive director forCharlotte Family Housing, a nonprofit that offers homeless families support. “While homeless families do not live under bridges, they are doubled or tripled up with very short-term host families, living in run-down extended-stay hotels or, in small cases, staying in their cars.”
Ash says he was not surprised by the jump in family homelessness or that many hotels have become de facto family shelters. Last summer, his organization received 100 calls a week from families seeking assistance.
That said, Charlotte officials reported to the mayoral conference in 2011 that only 10 percent of residents requesting assistance did not receive it — a low percentage compared with other U.S. cities surveyed.
RECOVERY AT THE BOTTOM
In January, unemployment in the metro area was 10.4 percent, more than a percentage point higher than Atlanta’s and well above the national average of 8.3 percent. Charlotte’s rate has since eased to 10 percent; Atlanta’s has dropped to 9 percent.
“We created a lot of jobs, but a lot of those jobs were $8 an hour,” Ash says. “If you are a single mom with kids, if you have a low-paying job, you are already on the edge of homelessness to begin with.”
Young estimates that she has filled out more than 100 applications. She says she’s gone on five interviews so far without success.
“I did a lot of research on Charlotte,” Young says. “But I was surprised when I got here at how hard it was to find housing and to get a job.”
“I still think Charlotte is great,” she adds. “I think it’s a beautiful city … [But] the one thing that struck me about Charlotte is the number of homeless people that are here. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Deronda Metz, director of social services for the Salvation Army in Charlotte, says its shelter for women and children, which can hold about 250, is full. Sometimes, residents have to sleep on cots in the dining room or in the television room. Two church congregations allow for an additional 100 beds. They, too, are at capacity. “We have been overcrowded since about 2006,” Metz says.
“The problem really has grown,” Metz says. “We have not been able to meet the demand, the increased demand. In 2010, we were serving 300. In 2011, we hit 400 people in the shelter in one night.”
The Room in the Inn, a nightly rotating shelter program at area colleges and churches not favored by families, saw more than a 50 percent increase in families. From December 2011 to the end of March, the shelter housed 47 families — up from 21 during the same time the previous year. The number of individuals in families served at the shelter shot up from 52 to 404.
Much of the mayor’s efforts to address the crisis have been through the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Coalition for Housing, an appointed board set up to implement the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. While nonprofit leaders praise the mayor for making the issue a priority, critics say the coalition spends too much time selling the idea of affordable housing to the Mecklenburg County’s more conservative enclaves instead of fighting homelessness.
“I would tell you the coalition is just an advisory board,” says coalition board chairman Mike Rizer, an executive vice president at Wells Fargo bank. “We don’t actually fund anything.” He added later in an email: “We have tried to be a catalyst for the community around the issue of affordable housing. But at the end of the day, the government entities decide on funding.”
Foxx insists he is “working to make the coalition as effective as possible.” Still, the coalition has no funding, and can only make recommendations.
Various charities and nonprofits have tried to fill the gap left by government, but many families are still struggling. “I would say the safety net is thin,” says Caroline Chambre, director for HousingWorks for the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte.
Beatrice Agbegbon, 48, says she put her name on the waiting list for city’s subsidized housing in 2004. She and her two children, now 20 and 17, ended up going through Ash’s Charlotte Family Housing program and eventually got a house through Habitat for Humanity last year. She’s not sure what she’d be doing now without that private support. “I probably would have sunk back into depression,” she says, “which would have brought an onset of drug use again.” She adds that she has relatives living in an area hotel.
Agbegbon currently works as a parking attendant earning $8.50 an hour.
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH
Housing is a major problem for low-income families in the Charlotte area. Food is another.
Fred Williams lives in lot No. 15 of an unnamed trailer park near the airport, a few miles from where Obama will give his acceptance speech. Williams says he eats out most days, though the nearby O’Yeah Carry Out is only open six days a week. “There ain’t nothing around here,” he says when asked where he buys his groceries. “The only thing we’ve got is Walmart, but you have to take a bus for that — $1.75 coming and going — and they’re about to raise that another quarter.”
Williams lives in one of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s 60 food deserts, as identified by a 2010 UNC Charlotte Department of Public Health Sciences study commissioned by the county. The study found that 73,000 residents were living without easy access to fresh food.
“In so many neighborhoods, if folks want to buy a head of lettuce for a salad, or some fruit for their kids’ lunch, they’d have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab in order to do it, to go into a different community just to do the basics for their kids,” she said at a Chicago Walgreens following a mayors’ summit on food deserts.
Elizabeth Racine, assistant professor at UNC Charlotte’s Department of Health and Human Services, describes food deserts as “a community or small neighborhood identified as low income and as not having a full-service food store” where people can buy healthful items. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a quarter of Mecklenburg County’s population is obese. According to the UNC Charlotte study, people in food deserts are more likely to be obese, have diabetes and heart disease, and die prematurely.
John Autry, one of nine Democrats on the Charlotte city council, says the city is trying to improve. He cites grants and lowering restrictions that prevent farmers markets from accepting food stamps. Plus, he says, “The city’s Economic Development Office is at work to bring a grocer to the West Boulevard area” — Williams’ part of town.
Meanwhile, citizens like Ryan Mitchell, founder of Cooks Community Garden, are providing relief. Mitchell and other volunteers take a mobile farmers market “into low-income communities where grocery stores refuse to build stores.”
As Williams’ cousin, Shun Curry, puts it, “The convenience stores aren’t even convenient around here.”
EVERYTHING IS FOR RENT
As with most cities hosting national political conventions, including Tampa, Fla., host of this year’s Republican National Convention, not everything in Charlotte will be so convenient during convention week. The bid process required city officials to reserve more than 150 restaurants, major hotels, museums and public parkland for convention-goers, essentially shutting off its main spaces from its own residents.
“We need to make sure everyone coming to town has what they need,” says Suzi Emmerling, the host committee’s press secretary.
Foxx is betting that the convention’s impact will extend beyond that week, and says he’s hopeful that hosting can help Charlotte address its broader problems. He laid out a series of legacy projects that include decreasing the business district’s carbon footprint, tackling obesity and increasing diversity in the financial district. The mayor says he wants the convention’s legacy projects to have “tangible outcomes.”
“Any city in a globally competitive economy has to seek the competitive advantages that it can,” Foxx says, “and this convention, for us, is a competitive advantage.”