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In Big And Small Ways, Charlotte Is Rebuilding After 2020

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David Boraks
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WFAE
Renaissance West STEAM Academy principal Stacey Clark (right) and staffers decorated a bus with a sign that says "Let's Zoom Eagles." They held a parade through west Charlotte neighborhoods last week urging students to attend Zoom classes.

The trials and tribulations of 2020 have exposed our community's strengths and weaknesses. Over the next year, we'll examine these through our new series, Rebuilding Charlotte. WFAE will look at both the challenges and opportunities as families, businesses and institutions struggle to recover from the pandemic. In our first installment, reporter David Boraks talks to Charlotteans about the challenges ahead.

Students at Renaissance West STEAM Academy got to see their teachers in person the other day in a parade of cars through their west Charlotte neighborhoods. One teacher's sign summed up the parade's key message: "See you on Zoom."

Classes are completely online these days, but Principal Stacey Clark said too many students aren't showing up — or they're turning off their cameras and microphones during class.

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David Boraks
Renaissance West STEAM Academy teachers paraded through West Charlotte neighborhoods last week urging students to attend Zoom classes.

"You have to be engaged," Clark said. "And a part of being on Zoom is that face-to-face connection with your teacher; you're able to interact with your peers on Zoom."

Clark's goal is to get lagging attendance up to 93% from 87% and make sure kids don't fall behind.

That teachers' parade is one of the many tactics used these days to try to make things work amid the coronavirus pandemic. Businesses have found new ways for employees to collaborate. Restaurants have learned to do takeout. Music and theater groups have gone remote. It's all aimed at getting back to some sense of normalcy when everything is far from normal.

But to really get there, vaccination is the key, said Charlotte City Council member Malcolm Graham.

"To get people back to normal, we got to defeat the virus," Graham said. "And then slowly but surely, as people are emerging and have been vaccinated, then we can come back to our public spaces."

But that might take awhile. What happens in the meantime?

Planning For Reopening

Tom Gabbard
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Tom Gabbard

Getting those public spaces open again is the current challenge for Tom Gabbard, CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts in Charlotte.

"The immediate is how we create a safe environment to reopen our theaters and honestly convey to health officials and the public that it's safe to come back into our venues," he said.

Current COVID-19 restrictions prohibit large gatherings, like those that might attend a symphony concert or a stage show. Gabbard has been studying how theaters and performance halls elsewhere have been able to open, with solutions such as rapid testing, taking people's temperatures, and requiring masks.

But for Gabbard, reopening isn't just about adapting to COVID-19. The year 2020 brought a lot of new challenges and things to consider. He said businesses and institutions also need to adjust to a world changed by the police killings of people of color and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Black Lives Matter, in particular, has forced a lot of groups to really do some introspection that was needed," Gabbard said. "How we define our mission and how we define success goes beyond the pure art piece."

Gabbard said arts groups must realize that they have "a social relevance in the community that extends beyond just having a pleasant night."

That means working hard to reach diverse communities, and more programs like "We Are Hip Hop," a performance series that debuted last fall.

Building Better

From education to housing to transportation to business, people are trying to figure out not only on how to rebuild, but how to build something better. The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests have given new impetus to solving problems that were there before but are now at the top of the agenda.

Janet LaBar
Charlotte Regional Business Alliance
Janet LaBar

Charlotte ranked 50th out of 50 large U.S. cities for economic mobility in an often-cited 2014 report. A follow-up last year found little has changed: Children who grow up in Charlotte's low-income households still have a poor chance of escaping poverty. That's why improving racial equity in the business community is one of the main goals this year for the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, said CEO Janet LaBar.

"It's time to really move the needle and really have outcomes that, you know, show our trajectory that everyone here can live and thrive here and work here," LaBar said. "And that is, to me, that is the better picture for us."

Putting that into action will require new commitments at the region's large and small businesses, she said.

"It is on us to embrace the notion of racial equity and ... we must look for opportunities to advance people, provide them with economic opportunities through job training and workforce development," LaBar said.

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Michael DeVaul

Time For Action

Studying problems of racial equity and injustice is one thing. But Michael DeVaul says the region has spent too long studying our problems, and not enough putting all those reports into action.

"If the system is not really reallocating resources, if it's focused only on research but not the action, then the equity is dormant. Because there's no equity, right? If you don't reallocate the resources to specifically attack the things you're learning in the reports, then it just gets worse and worse and worse," said DeVaul, a co-founder of My Brother's Keeper of Charlotte Mecklenburg.

The My Brother's Keeper program is inspired by former President Barack Obama to improve opportunities for boys and young men of color. My Brothers Keeper is working with its first group of 240 boys in two ZIP codes, in west Charlotte and east Charlotte. From fifth grade until they graduate from high school, the boys will get social and emotional support, help with reading and other subjects, and career counseling.

Nationwide and in Charlotte, COVID-19 has brought new urgency to problems of inequity, said Hector Vaca of Action NC.

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Hector Vaca

"The COVID pandemic has also shown what a lot of the inequalities have been in our community and things that we really need to build on," Vaca said.

A recent report from Action NC and the Center for Popular Democracy found what Vaca calls a staggering number of people whose family finances have been hurt by the pandemic — especially Black and Latino residents and new immigrants.

Vaca said he hopes greater awareness of the problem will bring changes.

"We need more worker protections, in general, and especially with immigrants," Vaca said. "We need more paid time off, for people to be able to take time off during the pandemic to be with their families, stay safe; but also if they get sick."

Housing And Transportation

The pandemic also has drawn attention to the Charlotte region's struggles to supply enough housing — especially affordable housing and housing for homeless residents. Graham said it's a major challenge, particularly for people who live in the large encampments of homeless residents near uptown known as "Tent City."

"Thinking about how (to) rebuild Charlotte, it's making sure that everyone lands in a safe place regarding their finances, right?" Graham said. "Their ability to pay their rent and their mortgages, their utilities. Of the ability for the community to help those that need help the most, like the residents of Tent City."

Dena Diorio
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Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio

Encampments are the most visible sign of a problem that has worsened over the past year. Shelters have reduced capacity to prevent spread of the coronavirus and some programs have cut back services. County Manager Dena Diorio told a Mecklenburg town hall on homelessness last month that the problem has local roots, but also national ones.

"The encampment in the north end of uptown highlights many of the ongoing challenges that have resulted from long-term federal and state policies and budget cuts," Diorio said. "These issues include a lack of affordable housing and living wages, limited resources for individuals with significant behavioral health needs and multiple barriers to housing."

The county has allocated $34 million over the past year to help, Diorio said. That includes money for rental assistance and preventing evictions. The county spent $6.8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to put homeless residents up in hotels. This winter, the county actually has 273 additional beds compared with last year.

Still, the broader problem remains how to increase the supply of affordable housing, said Liz Clasen-Kelly of the homeless services agency Roof Above.

"We have this fundamental disalignment between what people earn and what our housing costs, Clasen-Kelly said at the county town hall. "And so that's really what creates this homelessness crisis in our community."

Meanwhile, there are other kinds of rebuilding to do. The city wants to expand the transit network — but that would require a sales tax increase as well as state and federal funding. Business Alliance CEO LaBar said past investments in things like infrastructure and education have helped Charlotte grow and prosper. A modern transportation network is critical to keeping and recruiting employers, she said.

"If there's a plan in place, that gives them the kind of the signal that, you know, the community cares about roads, and maintenance, and transit, multimodal options," LaBar said.

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Charlotte City Council member Malcolm Graham

Simpler Goals, Too

Beyond the big issues, though, are simpler wishes. Graham envisions dining out again with friends and a busier uptown.

"It amazes me how empty uptown is, how lonely it feels," Graham said. "I'm just ready for the hustle and bustle of the 15th-largest city to begin to flex its muscle once again, where workers are going to work and dining in our restaurants, going to plays in our theaters, feeling comfortable going to a game … which really bolsters the economy for the whole region."

Dan Rajkowski is just looking forward to watching two teams play a game again. He's the chief operating officer for the Charlotte Knights, who didn't play at all last year. The minor league baseball season is scheduled to start in April, but with North Carolina still limiting occupancy at sporting events to 7% of stadium capacity, Rajkowski isn't sure how things will go.

"It doesn't make sense for us to open the buildings because we're losing money playing," Rajkowski said. "So our hope is that as time goes on, and things get better, we can get it to at least a minimum of 25% capacity, which puts us around 2,500 (fans), and that would be somewhat livable."

As far as wishes of normalcy go, Renaissance West's Clark has an even more basic one: being able to hug her students again.

"I think every last person here will tell you, that's what we've missed. The physical connection that you have with children, seeing their eyes light up," Clark said. "They want to hug you, they want to be proud of their work. It's good on Zoom, but it's just not quite the same."

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