“Growing Pains” – Lake Norman Chamber May Message to the Membership

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to appear on a special Town Hall version of WFAE’s Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. The event, held at CPCC – Merancas Campus, featured our Town Managers, Transportation Planners, NC DOT staff, and Mayors.

The Charlotte Talks program was a discussion on issues ranging from transportation, and education to affordable housing and the pressing need for a magistrate in North Mecklenburg.

Pic c Charlotte-TalksNCDOT’s Scott Cole and Huntersville Transportation Planner Bill Coxe discussed the nearly half billion dollars in approved transportation projects planned for Huntersville, Davidson, and Cornelius and the improvements which will be made to our east- west arteries: Gilead Road, Sam Furr (NC Hwy 73), and Catawba Avenue.

Both pointed out with the improvements to other secondary roads, alternative modes of transportation such as Bus Rapid Transit, Rail, and Bike Paths, and the soon to be opened Managed Lanes – we could see congestion relief.

When Mike Collins asked me directly, what is the message I convey to businesses interested in locating to the Lake Norman region?  I could have taken on the role of cheerleader and sugar coated the issue.  I chose not to do that.

Instead, I responded that I-77 is the “Most Critical Issue” facing our lake communities and the aforementioned projects and alternative means of transportation will not dig us out of the hole we are making when it comes to our diminished quality of life and negative economic impact the Managed Lanes will ensure.

The Toll Lanes will not solve our congestion issue – they will guarantee it! 

As a Chamber of Commerce, we will continue to advocate that the project be finished, and the state buy out the contract and convert one of the proposed Managed Lanes to a Free General-Purpose Lane.  In the meantime, we must harden the shoulders of I-77 and provide additional General-Purpose (Free) lanes which could be used during peak driving times.

Some critics and toll road supporters have likened the efforts of our grass root opposition to tolls as foolhardy, wasted effort, or simply a belief in fairytales. Well, count me as one of the many who still believe in Fairytales!

Neil Gaiman, an English Author said, “Fairytales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

We do have a great many dragons facing us as we grow: our transportation challenges, overcrowded schools, affordable housing for our teachers, police, and firemen  – all critical to our basic needs as a community.

However, these are all challenges which come from growth.  I don’t think any of us would rather live in a region that is stagnant and dying such as a rural community that lacks the basic infrastructure to support business and industry.  It would be devastating to live in a community like that where children leave when they graduate from school on a quest to find employment in a different community that is vibrant and growing.

Each of us have a responsibility to leave our community better than we found it. That is our charge and by Working Hard, Working Smart, and Working Together – we will slay those dragons.  They can be beaten. Quite simply, it is the responsibility we owe to the generation who succeed us and we cannot settle for anything less.

Bill Russell

Picture:   Mike Collins and Doug Boraks of WFAE along with Chamber President Bill Russell on the Town Hall Edition of Charlotte Talks. Photo Courtesy of Ellen Stafford, LKNConnect.com

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

SPECIAL BUSINESS BRIEFING: The Business of Tolls – Myths, Misinformation and Mayhem

tollsThe Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce will hold two separate special business briefings on Tuesday August 11th and Tuesday August 18th from 6:30 to 8 pm at The Galway Hooker Irish Pub located at 17044 Kenton Dr. in Cornelius. While the chamber of commerce would like to encourage local business owners and managers to attend, the special business briefings are open to the public. Chamber leaders will be joined by Mecklenburg County Board Commissioner Jim Puckett as they cite the business and economic implications of the proposed Toll Lane plan on the Lake Norman economy.

The Chamber initially took a firm stance that the widening of I-77 from exit 36 to just below exit 23 was critical to the overall economic health of the region. Bill Russell, president of the chamber and an ex-officio board member of the Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission, points out that local elected and business leaders were presented with the option of widening I-77 through tolling or waiting 20 years or more for the project to be funded with general purpose lanes.  “We did not think putting off relief for 20 years was an option,” he said.  “However, it would now seem the proposed HOT Lanes will not relieve congestion – it actually guarantees it!”

Past Chamber Chair John Hettwer agrees, “Like many business owners in the last few years, I was battling through the recession, building my business, and confident our elected leadership was looking out for all of us.  Unfortunately, they were being given misleading information by the NCDOT, and we now find ourselves in a fight for the economic and business vitality of our region.”

Jim Puckett, Mecklenburg County Commissioner for District #1 has been a longtime opponent of the toll project.  “I- 77 is the lifeline of North Mecklenburg and South Iredell counties and the current design and tolling plans will have a devastating impact on the future of our region and economic development going forward.  With the current ill-conceived plan contracted to last 50 years NOW is the time for the business community to push for a better solution. “

Chamber leaders hope to use the meetings to further educate businesses and citizens on the impact of tolling at the lake and plans to move forward.  Russell said he hopes citizens and business owners will attend one of the two meetings and encourage their friends and neighbors to attend. “I know a great many elected leaders, including our governor, say it’s far too late to stop this project now.  Perhaps so, but on the other hand it’s simply never too late to do the right thing.”

Lake Norman Chamber President’s e-Brief Newsletter for April 5, 2013

Bill Russell
Bill Russell

Chamber Members and stakeholders:

Chamber U: QuickBooks

This Tuesday at 3:30 to 5:00 pm, the Chamber welcomes Christine Carlini, CPA who will provide a high level overview of QuickBooks for Chamber U attendees.  Christine is a CPA that is certified in QuickBooks, QuickBooks Online and QuickBooks Point of Sale. This takes place at the Chamber.  Read more about Chamber U here.

Economic Forecast Luncheon – April 18 noon Northstone Country Club

Mark Vitner, managing director and senior economist at Wells Fargo, will provide an in depth analysis of the US economy in terms of the current regional market and national economy when he presents: “Finally, We Have a Real Recovery.”  Vitner will discuss recent economic developments including sequestration, the budget, as well as fiscal and monetary policy. The luncheon will be held at Northstone Country Club Thursday, April 18th at noon.  Read more about the luncheon and registration information here

Focus Friday welcomes NC Senator Jeff Tarte

Friday, April 26  8:30- 10:00 am

Join us Friday morning, April 26 from 8:30 until 10:00 am as we welcome N.C Senator Jeff Tarte to speak on North Carolina legislation.  There is no charge and all members are welcome to attend and ask questions of Senator Tarte. To view Senator Tarte’s newsletter and topics he will likely cover at the Focus Friday read more here.

Calling all Leadership Lake Norman Graduates

If you are a graduate of the LeadershipLakeNorman program (1997-2012), the Chamber will host a graduation of Class XVI and honor past graduates of the program.  The event will be held Tuesday, May 14 at a location TBD. If you are a graduate and have not heard about this event, chances are we don’t have your most current email.  Please email russell@lakenorman.org for more information. New applications for Class XVII will go out in June.

Managed Lanes – Lake Norman’s HOT issue

A great deal has been written about managed or “express” lanes recently as NC DOT makes plans to widen I-77.  Chairman of the Board Moran and I recently attended a briefing in Raleigh with speaker Tillis, members of Widen I-77 opposed to managed lanes, town and state elected officials and business leaders. I shared with our Legislative delegation that, “The Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce fully supports and seeks the widening of I-77 in this corridor, sooner than later – whether that is by managed lanes, private investment, design-build, or general purpose lanes.  The economic development, business growth, and quality of life of our region depends on this critical road improvement.”

While the Lake Norman Chamber, to date, has taken no formal issue on toll lanes or private investment in our transportation infrastructure, there is an interesting article on the subject in a report prepared for the John Locke Foundation, arguable the most conservative think tank organization in the state.  The report cited tolling as an alternative to dwindling gas tax revenues as a source of revenue for funding transportation improvements on pages 41-45.  You can read the report prepared by The Hartgen Group here.

Bill Russell, CCE IOM

President & CEO

LakeNorman Chamber of Commerce

Widening I-77 – Our Adventures in Wonderland

Pic 2 Presidents article I-77You may recall Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  In this childhood classic, Alice chases a white rabbit and inadvertently falls into a hole and experiences a world where nothing is quite what it seems.  As a chamber executive, I strive to stay informed on policy matters.  However, when I attend meetings regarding land use and transportation, I often feel like Alice, in a world where nothing is quite what it should be.

Sometimes it seems road improvement projects simply defy common sense.  Placing concrete medians in front of businesses, like those on Holly Point Drive in Huntersville may indeed expedite vehicular travel.  However, these same medians severely limit access to and from businesses – and harm the businesses.  Keep in mind those businesses create sales tax dollars and property taxes that help to pay for road improvements. More importantly these businesses also provide jobs.  Unfortunately, the vitality of business does not seem to be a top priority for transportation planners.

Perhaps there in no greater transportation issue for the Lake Norman region than the widening of I-77. The current plan utilizes HOT (High Occupancy Toll) or managed lanes to accomplish this.  Critics suggest we need to build general purpose lanes instead and they point to Atlanta as an example where tolls have not been as successful as transportation leaders hoped.

I have attended meetings of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission (LNTC) and Widen 77 where both sides are presented.  As a member of the LNTC, we have studied HOT lanes for more than two years.  Many of us on the LNTC, believe with our limited transportation dollars, HOT lanes might be our only recourse to see additional lanes on I-77 for many years.  But I do agree with some of the points made by Widen I-77.   In “Alice in Wonderland”, there is the classic line, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.”   In regard to I-77 improvements, once done – it will not be undone. Unlike Alice’s Wonderland,  in our case, not just any road will do.

This month, the Chamber will host a Focus Friday on I-77 (Friday, Feb 22 at 8:30 am).  We will hear from Bill Thunberg of the LNTC and Kurt Nass with Widen I-77.  We also hope to line up a representative from the NC Department of Transportation.  It will not be the last word on the subject but perhaps it will continue to bring clarity to a controversial subject: HOT Lanes or General Purpose Lanes.

With substantially more road improvement projects than revenue and an Equity Formula that has proven to be quite inequitable – NC DOT may still have their own version of the “Elusive Cheshire Cat” from Carroll’s novel.

Elected officials, community members, and business leaders in our region have formed a strong partnership and are developing a great vision and plan for the future.  I am quite confident working together, we will create a transportation strategy for our future – whether that is the proposed P3 partnership (HOT Lanes) or General Purpose Lanes.

We are on a road to unbridled opportunities where our only limitations are those we impose upon ourselves.  We will succeed because we understand that the Lake Norman region is our community and this community means business.  Please join us this Friday (Feb 22) for Focus Friday from 8:30 – 10:00 am at the Chamber and learn for yourself which road will do.

Focus Friday is sponsored by DavidsonNews.net and CorneliusNews.net.