How Charlotte Won Three Knight Cities Challenge Grants

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The answer’s simpler than you’d think, but the city manager doesn’t expect a repeat performance to come as easy.

When asked what Charlotte, North Carolina’s secret was to winning, not one but, three Knight Cities Challenge grants in 2014, City Manager Ron Carlee was frank: better messaging.

Raking in $176,300 between the contest entries—aimed at improving neighborhood engagement, resident trust in government and sense of place—is no small feat, and the Queen City did it with short, simple emails encouraging city employee participation.

But sometimes all it takes is an administrator pushing the invitation to invest in staff early and often to inspire change and good ideas.

“I’d like to say we have smarter, more creative people than anywhere else in the world, but I’m not foolhardy enough. I think the real key was unleashing their individual creativity,” Carlee told Route Fifty. “These are not things they would have proposed in their city government jobs as part of the formal process going up the administrative chain of command.”

The Knight Cities Challenge offers a share of $5 million to anyone, from amateur architects to CEOs, with winning ideas to improve their cities, and its second annual contest starts Oct. 1.

Charlotte is in the process of implementing its winning projects like Porch Swings in Public Places, which will install four to six of the unique, comfortable features near bus stops and public and private buildings along transit routes.

“The South is all about porch swings and rocking chairs,” said winner Tom Warshauer in an interview. “I wanted to make bus transit stops competitive and amenitized the way light rail is amenitized.”

As the Neighborhood and Business Services Department’s community engagement manager, Warshauer sees an array of transit-dependent residents both at work and taking the bus himself. So he knows Central Avenue is the city’s highest-ridership corridor in addition to being the most international—lined with immigrants’ businesses and connecting millennials to their favorite bars and beer gardens.

Along the route, two apartment complexes; a few churches with afterschool offerings in addition to worship; a police station next to a large tree; and an international house with multiple tenants, a large green space and transit access have all been considered for porch swings. The leading candidates feature high bus ridership, tree cover, flat ground for the installation and are near places where a maintenance worker could easily inspect the swings occasionally.

Warshauer hasn’t ruled out adding other amenities like water fountains and plants near the swings as well. Putting porch swings near school bus stops was also considered but the student numbers deemed too high.

“The idea is to create a welcome environment and sense of place. I can’t wait until we have the first one open,” Carlee said. “These are relatively simple, but very powerful, concepts.”

Another winner, Sarah Hazel’s No Barriers project identified Anita Stroud Park as a physical divide between the Genesis Park, Park at Oaklawn and Brightwalk neighborhoods and brought residents from all three together in a test run to co-create unifying features. Hazel is currently an International City/County Management Association local government management fellow.

And Storm Water Services spokeswoman Alyssa Dodd’s Take Ten initiative was previously featured by Route Fifty. Several hundred city employees will enter into 10-minute conversations with random residents to record feedback on the government’s work and reflect more broadly on their role.

Dodd and Carlee had never met prior to her winning the Knight grant, but she told him the night of the awards she would not have applied had he not followed up on his initial challenge email.

Warshauer, too, credits the city manager’s support as the encouragement he needed to “try something out.” He points to the nation’s fastest-growing Code for America brigade in Charlotte, only two years old, as a sign of the city’s innovative mindset.

“I do think in Charlotte we have a large population of people that really want to be engaged,” Warshauer said. “New millennials want to make a difference.”

The important thing to remember about the Knight Cities Challenge, Carlee said, is that it’s not about to bringing city government’s best minds together to come up with a singular response but promoting the values around engagement where people work.

So he sent an email to hundreds of employees asking them to enter two days into the contest, followed by a reminder several days later.

“We did a better job creating opportunity, and I suspect it’ll be much harder this next round. And it’s great because, you know what?” Carlee said. “We’ll steal other cities’ good ideas, and we hope they’ll steal our good ideas too.”

Dave Nyczepir is News Editor for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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