Project genesis and further development

One of the first efforts to deal with these changes occurred with the formation of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Citizens Forum (CMCF) in 1984. Conflict between development interests and neighbourhood groups on rezoning issues provided the impetus for developing the Citizens Forum. Leaders from the two groups as well as other community leaders were invited to a weekend retreat to discuss these conflicts and consider ways of improving the dialogue. This group of leaders found that there was more agreement than disagreement among them concerning the future growth of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. They initiated a dialogue and decided to formalize the first discussions with the formation of CMCF. While this new organization began largely as a way of maintaining open discussion among developers and neighbourhoods, its agenda soon expanded to include the broadest array of development and community issues. It became more action-oriented, and its membership was expanded, although membership in the organization continued to be by invitation only.

During the first three years of its existence, the Forum achieved significant successes in directing public policy to respond to emerging issues. The Forum initiated Project Catalyst, which was a partnership of community groups seeking to redevelop and revitalize a run-down area in Northwest Charlotte around Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black institution. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, an effort to promote affordable housing for low-income residents, was a Forum project. The Forum also advocated and eventually prevailed in establishing a new policy for the expansion of water and sewer lines into selected portions of the county as a method of redirecting growth. In addition, the once heated exchange between developers and citizens had become much more amiable and less threatening to community consensus.

By 1987, discussions at Forum meetings had taken on a new tenor. Broader issues such as traffic congestion and dissatisfaction with the public schools threatened the continued growth and prosperity of the community, and a feel-ing persisted that the leadership process was failing to respond to these issues. The campaign for mayor in 1987 and the eventual outcome of that campaign led community leaders to the conclusion that a new method was needed to address the problems facing Charlotte.

The 1987 mayoral contest was between Harvey Gantt, a popular two-term mayor who had successfully wedded his representation of the disadvantaged and neighborhoods groups with the desires of the business community, and Sue Myrick, a maverick politician who had served an uneventful term on the city council. Challenger Myrick continually used the traffic congestion issue as evidence that the incumbent had failed to respond to the needs of all Charlotteans.

The mayoral contest brought Sue Myrick to office, a person who was an unknown to the traditional leadership and who had defeated a highly respected African-American mayor. Her agenda was composed almost entirely of one item relieving traffic congestion but she said little in terms of methods to accomplish that end. These events catalyze the discussions in the Forum. Changes in the methods of achieving community goals were evident, and many worried that these changes could endanger ongoing efforts to build community-wide consensus.

Some members of the Forum were aware of the National Civic League’s de-velopment of a Civic Index to evaluate a community’s “civic infrastructure,” or its ability to govern itself through consensus and cooperation. The League began to advocate the use of this technique because it seemed to fit what the group saw as the problem in Charlotte-Mecklenburg: a diminution of the ability to govern with consensus on a commonly held view of progress. Negotiations began with representatives of the National Civic League and were concluded successfully. Under the sponsorship of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Citizens Forum, the community became one of the first in the nation to use the Civic Index to evaluate the effectiveness of its civic infrastructure.