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Charlotte came last among major cities in a 2014 report measuring economic mobility. That served as a rallying cry for Charlotte leaders to try to figure out how to improve opportunities for the city’s poorest residents. We look at where Charlotte is eight years later.

Is tennis really going to unlock economic mobility?

 Rendering of a proposed tennis facility
City of Charlotte
Beemok Capital
A rendering of a new $400 million tennis complex proposed for Charlotte by Beemok Capital.

This column appeared first as part of WFAE's EQUALibrium newsletter, exploring race and equity in the Charlotte region. Get the latest news and analysis in your inbox first by signing up here.

I was in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center in 2014 when local leaders unveiled the now infamous Chetty study ranking Charlotte last — 50th out of 50 — for economic mobility. Nearly a decade out, it’s hard to overstate the impact that glaringly bad ranking had on Charlotte’s leaders.

The struggle to improve economic mobility, to make it easier for children living in poverty to climb the ladder of success, became the city’s paramount issue.

Nine years later, it’s striking how many of Charlotte’s local policy debates are still wrapped up in the language of economic mobility. Whether it’s transit and transportation, disparities in the school system, or racial inequities in housing, that’s how you’ll likely hear the questions framed. And to a large degree, that makes sense — after all, housing, transportation and education are intimately connected to your prospects for getting a job, earning more and building wealth.

But viewing everything through the lens of economic mobility can also lead to some curious juxtapositions. The latest: In the discussion about a developer seeking public subsidies for a new tennis complex, the sports arena has largely been portrayed as a tool to help low-income communities and children.

Some quick background: Beemok Capital, a company owned by Charleston billionaire Ben Navarro, wants Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and the state to cover about one-third of the cost of a new, $400 million tennis complex west of Charlotte’s airport. Beemok says it’s considering relocating the Western & Southern Open, one of the tennis world’s biggest tournaments, to Charlotte from Cincinnati. Local and state governments have agreed to kick in $120 million ($65 million from the city, $30 million from the county and $25 million from the state).

Charlotte always wants its share of the limelight. And plenty of officials have talked about how the new complex will help put Charlotte “on the map,” garnering international attention. But Mayor Vi Lyles really set the tone a few weeks ago in describing the arena’s expected impact.

"We have to come together with the idea that the people in this city deserve to have jobs, and that’s what we are doing — creating jobs in this community that needs those jobs," Lyles said.

That’s pretty standard for economic development projects. Politicians love to tout the jobs impact of their proposals. At the county commission’s meeting last week, officials talked about how the tennis complex will provide discounted access for people with low incomes, the opportunity for people on the west side to get jobs, the chance for kids to get tennis scholarships to attend college, and the potential for tennis to open doors to opportunities for those in underserved communities.

Commissioner Arthur Griffin was one of the few skeptical voices about whether a new, privately-owned tennis complex is really the best way the county can provide for economic mobility and address issues like racial health gaps (he was also one of two who voted against funding the complex).

“I do have a problem when it comes down to $30 million for this particular project, because our work is about human services,” he said. “You know, I'm told by staff that African Americans lead the pack in terms of dying prematurely in Mecklenburg County. We talk about educational attainment and the gaps in educational attainment all the time, but we can't afford certain kinds of education programs to make sure that our kids are college- and career-ready.

While he added that he supports sports and economic development, Griffin pointed out that there’s a tradeoff: “These resources will come from county dollars either in reserve funds or your operating dollars.”

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Griffin’s colleagues on the commission were quick to disagree, arguing that funding economic development means the county will collect more property taxes in the future to pay for programs like those Griffin mentioned. Commissioner Leigh Altman said her only goal in supporting the tennis facility boils down to the facets behind economic mobility.

“I don't care about any of that, frankly,” Altman said about the “sexy” aspects of luring a prestigious sporting event. “What I care about is how will this improve the lives of our residents?”

“My number one goal is to improve the quality of life for regular people here in Mecklenburg County,” she added. “I want them to have increased household incomes. I want their children to have access to great amenities. I want people to be able to afford housing and health care and transportation and have a great quality of life.”

None of this is to say that the tennis complex isn’t a great idea, or that it won’t help some people who otherwise might not find jobs. Or that access to tennis won’t help some kids who otherwise lack opportunities.

But when everything in local policy becomes economic mobility, we risk diluting the focus on what constitutes meaningful improvement. And we risk not asking the tough questions that Griffin asked. Is a tennis complex the best way to spend $30 million for economic mobility? Is the return on that investment better than spending the same amount of county money on, say, day care subsidies, or expanded health clinics, or rental vouchers?

And there’s an even thornier question lurking behind those: If everything can be called “economic mobility” in some form or fashion, then what, really, is economic mobility?

Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.