Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce says “No” to new sales tax

Mecklenburg County Chairman Parks Helms speaks to North Mecklenburg citizens in February 2001 at a “Flexliner” Demonstration in Mooresville.  Photo courtesy Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce.

Every day, I speak with business owners struggling to make payroll. Families who have endured hardships this past year unparalleled in our lifetime, and while there is a glimmer of sunshine peaking through the dark clouds which enveloped our nation almost a year ago, we still have a way to go before we get back to the economic prosperity we enjoyed this time last year. Yet, even as we rebuild and emerge from the darkness of the pandemic, there are those in city leadership who would raise taxes on our goods and service, add to the existing challenges of business owners, and increase the cost to consumers.  As ridiculous as it sounds, there are actual discussions taking place in Charlotte about whether they can get North Mecklenburg voters on board for a sales tax increase for transit.

A far flung idea?  Not really, North Meck voters have had a history of supporting transit. In 1998, the N.C. General Assembly passed legislation which allowed Mecklenburg County to enact a local sales tax dedicated to public transit after a public vote. Mecklenburg County residents reaffirmed their desire to improve public transit options once again in 2007 by approving this dedicated tax by an overwhelming 70% vote. The north Mecklenburg communities of Cornelius, Davidson, and Huntersville voted for this tax primarily based on the promise of commuter rail arriving from Charlotte.

The Lake Norman Chamber represented over 1,000 active business members, and loudly advocated in favor of this dedicated sales tax for public transit because of what commuter rail and expanded bus service could mean to commerce and economic growth for the Lake Norman region.

In 2001, several local Lake Norman area business and community leaders were taken on a highly publicized “Flexliner” transit ride on the old Norfolk Southern rail line from Charlotte to Mooresville. It demonstrated the promise of how commuter rail could positively impact the north market. 


It was that promise of opportunity and the vision of greatly expanded transit options from Charlotte to North Mecklenburg that persuaded our residents to vote in favor of the transit tax referendum in 2007. But history proved those visions to be mere illusions and false hope, as public transit and rail lines were improved everywhere except in North Mecklenburg. The Airport area, the University region and the residents of South Charlotte all saw change and growth. North Mecklenburg was left with no improvements other than more options for the already underutilized buses from the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS). Instead of getting new rail lines from Charlotte to Lake Norman as promised to gather our support, voters from North Mecklenburg received little more than a lesson in “bait and switch” politics. 

Almost a decade later, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and I-77 Mobility Partners, a limited liability corporation created by Cintra, signed a comprehensive agreement for the delivery of I-77 toll lanes. In response, Lake Norman residents voted overwhelmingly to cast out elected officials, both local and statewide, who pushed I-77 toll roads down the throats of our citizens, instead of meeting our actual needs and creating expanded general-purpose lanes which were introduced in other areas of the Charlotte region instead.

Now, in 2021, during the greatest economic and healthcare crisis of our lifetime, Charlotte City leaders are once again considering the expansion of light rail which could cost between $8 and $12 billion. According to Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla, “You are talking about $150 per person a year or $600 a year for a family of four for something those of us in North Mecklenburg will receive no benefit from.”

On Monday, January 25th, the Board of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, representing the voice of business in the Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, and the greater Lake Norman region unanimously, voted to oppose ANY further increase in sales tax, for ANY purpose, during this adverse economic climate.

With so many businesses, families, and organizations struggling to just meet the bare minimum costs of living and operating expenses, it is clearly the wrong time to even consider such a measure. More to the point, when it comes to whether or not North Mecklenburg voters will vote to fund another Charlotte Transit Tax……well, that train has already left the station.

W.E. “Bill” Russell, CCE, IOM
President & CEO
Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce

The voice which will not be silenced

Russell thoughts 1On January 2, 1996, I was hired as President of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, then known as the North Mecklenburg Chamber.  The Chamber at the time was working aggressively to bring a new High School to the area.  Our region was seeing dramatic growth, yet the schools were overcrowded and the CMS leadership in Charlotte relied on bussing North Mecklenburg children to schools in Charlotte as the answer.

While local elected officials and business leaders lobbied our School Board, the real change came about because parents and citizens said enough is enough. A successful lawsuit brought by local parents challenged the status quo and Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools were forced through the courts to stop using kids as pawns in their student assignment policies.

The North Mecklenburg Education Committee, Chamber of Commerce, FUME, and Town elected leadership worked together to bring new schools to North Meck. There are several significant individuals who played a key role from the county commissioners and school board representatives of District #1 to the parents and citizens who simply stood up to the bad policies impacting our children.

It’s funny how in twenty years some things have changed and some things have not. Once again, we see North Mecklenburg getting short changed – this time in the form of transportation improvements. Our elected leadership in Charlotte still holds the trump cards in a high stakes game which has dire consequences for the quality of life and commerce at the lake for the next 50 years.

Only…it is no game.  This nightmare is for real and the stakes are the legacy we leave for the generations to come.

Just as parents took the lead in an education lawsuit almost two decades ago, local citizens have banded together to stop the HOT lanes.  Widen I77 has a court date set for January 8th as they contest NCDOT’s contract with the Spanish firm Cintra.  Just over $100,000 has been raised by Widen I77 through fundraisers and local citizen contributions.I77 Traffic Jam

Running on a different path, the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO) will take up the issue again January 20th and could decide to ask NCDOT to cancel the contract with HOT lanes at the lake. Currently, the City of Charlotte controls 46% of the vote. There is a touch of irony that once again an individual, who does not reside in North Mecklenburg, could decide the future of a region for decades to come.

All that said, just as it was almost two decades ago when I arrived at the chamber, it will not be the influential “Power Players” that wakes the lake and with it…the state.

It will not be a Governor, Senator, State Legislator, or town board who stops the madness.  It will be the grassroots.  The mom who takes to the road everyday with her kids, the store owner trying to carve out a living, the young person just out of college, citizens, and parents – just everyday people who have been pushed way too far.

It will be one voice amplified thousands of times in a voice too loud to be silenced. A voice which will not be ignored until the will of the people prevail over the power of the few. And a voice which grows, louder, and louder, and louder each day.

But make no mistake, what started as a ripple in the waters of a lake will wash across this state, leaving change in its wake.

Bill Russell

Thoughts from a cluttered desk – What direction are we headed?

What direction are we headed?

AliceIn Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, there is an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat
“–so long as I get somewhere” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

I’m sure many of us feel like Alice.  Stuck in the congestion of I-77, if we wait long enough, we’ll get to our destination. The promise of express lanes to expedite our travel seemed like a solution months ago given the option of HOT lanes or no widening of I-77 at all. The leaders of the chamber of commerce felt the former option was the only option.

There are times looking back on this issue, I feel like our elected leaders…and yes…the business leaders too, including me, struggled with the right road to our funding. How do you get “there” when you don’t know where “there” is?

As I write this, the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce has joined other business and citizen voices in calling for the cancellation of the contract between NCDOT and I-77 Mobility Partners. It is an action on our part brought about by the groundswell of residents, small business owners and chamber of commerce members who saw the direction we were headed and said that is not the direction we need to go.

The Lake Norman area is unique. The Interstate which runs through the heart of our lake communities, yet is the common bond uniting our region, makes us different than other cities and towns in North Carolina.  I-77 is a local road.  It is how we get from one community to the next.  We may live in Huntersville, work in Cornelius, go to church in Davidson, and shop in Mooresville – but for many of us, we use I-77 to get there.I77 express lanes

Tolling and Public – Private Partnerships may well be the means to fund road improvement projects in other areas of the state.  That said, it’s not the best option for Lake Norman.

It doesn’t take a Cheshire Cat to figure out that not any old road will do. The path we were headed down was the wrong road. It was bad for the citizens living here.  It was bad for business. More importantly, it was bad for the legacy we leave to our children –  those who will inherit the results of our decisions today.

I sincerely hope we change the direction of this dialogue, and more importantly take a different direction in our actions. I’m not sure if we will be successful or not.  I simply know now, and I think I’ve always known, we have to try. We have a responsibility to the next generation of Lake Norman citizens and we dare not fail in our task.

W.E.  “Bill” Russell, CCE IOM