Representatives of CCOG have canvassed regional town board meetings in recent weeks, and last week, Mike Manis, executive director of the Centralina Economic Development Commission, made a pitch to the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, hustling through a presentation long on regionalism-speak but short on details, and actually uttered the phrase “preferred development scenario” while no one shifted in their chairs.
This preferred scenario will be the result of three years of study among 14 counties surrounding Charlotte in North Carolina and South Carolina, costing $5 million courtesy of a federal Housing and Urban Development Sustainable Communities Planning Grant plus $3 million more in private matching grants.
That’s an astonishing $8 million investment in something that, according to Statesville Mayor Pro-Tem Michael Johnson in a presentation to the Cornelius Town Board last month, is intended to produce more than just a three-inch ring binder to stand on shelves of town halls throughout the region.
Manis last week also noted that key federal agencies that fund local infrastructure with grants — such as Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Highway Administration — are moving toward combining to provide “singular grant opportunities” for regions that combine a “mosaic” of local plans to form a regional planning document. That document, Manis said, would include a “recommended analysis and pattern of how to grow and a system to engage and manage that and be ready for that.”
The key word in that statement is “manage.” On the surface, the stated goals of Connect Our Future seem innocuous enough: workforce development, encouraging entrepreneurship, quality of life, infrastructure and leadership. What none of the literature produced by Connect Our Future specifies is just who will be responsible for ensuring regional development occurs in such a way that the “singular grant opportunities” will be available to the region and to the local jurisdictions. To be certain, regional pressure will be brought to bear on planning closest to the local constituency to ensure such development fits within that regional model in order to remain eligible for these “singular” grants.
Manis further described how the study will provide for the structuring of public school curricula, from kindergarten through college, in order to produce a workforce that matches the needs of industry within the region. Just who will ensure that school systems teach to that criteria, and how they will do it, is also fuzzy.
To what extent then, prudence dictates it be asked, must members of the consortium — the towns, the counties, public school systems, etc. — sacrifice individual planning autonomy to the eventual Connect consortium model in order to remain eligible for future grant dollars? And who will be the authority that determines distribution of those dollars? And why is it that elected officials in a town such as Huntersville — who have in the past shown resistance, in some instances, to compromise a fraction of local autonomy in the spirit of cooperation with towns on its own border — will enter into a consortium agreement that could allow someone in, say, Chester, S.C., to exercise some measure of influence in how their town should grow?
Disappointingly, the only local elected official who is publicly asking those questions is Cornelius Commissioner Lynette Rinker. A few others have privately wondered the same, one of them suggesting Rinker has a good instinct for things that are not as they appear to be. Both Huntersville and Davidson town boards have signed off on the memorandum of understanding that commits their towns to participate in the Connect study. Cornelius has yet to jump on board, but appears to have enough votes to do so once Town Attorney Bill Brown has satisfactorily tweaked the language of the document.
As a member of CCOG, though, Cornelius and the rest are already committed to the outcome of Connect. It was CCOG that accepted the grant on its members’ behalf, leaving them beholden to the outcome as a result, whether they choose to have a seat at the table or not.
So is this actually support of what could be interpreted as a federal takeover of local planning via a regional body that will accept and distribute “singular grant opportunities,” or is it simply resignation to a reality that is already beyond local control?
To be certain, $8 million is going to buy a whole lot more than a three-inch ring binder on a town planner’s shelf. Somebody is going to want something for that investment.