BofA’s Cathy Bessant demonstrating new style of civic leadership on North Tryon

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Charlotte’s bid to land the NASCAR Hall of Fame was a perfect of example of the way business used to be done in this city.

In 2005, corporate executives raised $1 million to put together a proposal. Once Charlotte was selected, city leaders negotiated behind closed doors for weeks, and then-Mayor Pat McCrory signed off on it just a few hours after the public had a chance to know what was going on.

In short, Charlotte’s leaders decided they wanted the hall, and they went and got it.

NASCAR Hall of Fame

Ever since then, the hall has been dogged by low attendance and poor financial performance. The city views it today as more of a $193 million boondoggle than a crown jewel.

But it’s also an example of a leadership style that simply doesn’t work anymore, Bank of America’s Cathy Bessant says now. She had a front-row seat to the NASCAR Hall of Fame process — leading the group that recruited the hall to the city.

She’s not down on the NASCAR Hall of Fame at all. But a different approach might have yielded a better result.

“The NASCAR Hall of Fame is a great destination asset for Charlotte,” Bessant said. However, “Most people in Charlotte don’t embrace it as if it’s theirs.”

“We won’t repeat that mistake in being top-down.”

Cathy Bessant. Photo via Bank of America

Bessant is now getting a chance to put that lesson into action.

Fast forward a decade, and Bessant is one of Bank of America’s top executives in Charlotte, holding the title of chief operations and technology officer and overseeing nearly 100,000 employees.

She’s running a new civic venture, chairing the advisory committee overseeing the North Tryon Vision Plan. This project aims to revitalize an aging part of Uptown and turn it into a place where people in a range of income levels can live, work and play.

[Agenda story: The future of North Tryon looks bright]

An image from the North Tryon vision plan.

The plan itself is now more than two years old. But it recently took a big step forward when a proposal went out for a developer to take on the corner of Tryon and 7th Streets.

In the works:

  • 580,000 square feet of office space, both traditional and creative.
  • 685 units of market rate, senior and affordable housing
  • 135-room boutique hotel
  • 55,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space.
  • Centralized urban plaza
  • Pedestrian passages

The landowners in the mix make up 5 of the city’s power players: Mecklenburg County, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, the Charlotte Housing Authority, Bank of America and the city of Charlotte.

From the request for proposals on the 7th and Tryon project.

The project is intended to be a change agent for Charlotte, helping the city’s efforts to provide more opportunity and

Charlotte is still coming to grips with reports showing a profound lack of economic mobility for people born in low-income families, and schools largely segregated by race and class.

A civic leadership style where “rich uncles” hole up and decide things can be prone to leaving out groups of people who need help the most.

“Communities that do well with that are democratized,” Bessant said. “It’s much better to do that work in a way that’s ‘of’ people, not ‘to’ people.”

To that end, Bessant and the advisory board are throwing a get-together on Thursday to let the public get to know what’s in the plan. From 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., the Hal Marshall County Services Center will be full of live music, food from local vendors, craft beer, and performers from the Charlotte Ballet.

It will be a free-flowing event that will be outside the comfort zone for many government and business leaders. But it could also be a first step toward a major investment that the whole community can support.

“There’s no ivory tower approach here,” Bessant said. “It’s as much about how it happens as what happens.”

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Andrew Dunn
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