Saturday, September 25, 2010

Penguin battle: A story of change

Five months ago, Brian Rowe sat at the counter of The Diamond in Plaza Midwood, an awkward witness to a Charlotte restaurant owner’s farewell.

Jerry Pistiolis was retiring after 28 years of running the cozy diner, and the Charlotte legal crowd that came each day had come once more for a sad but warm celebration. It was an Old Charlotte moment, but also a Plaza Midwood moment.

Pistiolis was selling the joint to three other guys in the neighborhood, including two who had revived another old restaurant around the corner, The Penguin. Rowe and Jimmy King seemed out of place that day, tattooed and T-shirted amid the suits and khakis. But they were gracious to Pistiolis, and they said all the right words about how things at the Diamond wouldn’t change that much.

But now, everything else has.

On Wednesday afternoon, Rowe was again at the Diamond’s counter, texting, making phone calls, agitated. About a decade after buying the rights to operate the Penguin and turning it into one of Charlotte’s few funky treasures, he and King were out. The pair had planned on running the Diamond and Penguin as sister restaurants, but the Ballentine family, which owns The Penguin’s building and name, had decided not to renew their lease.

“We got the shaft,” Rowe said, but he didn’t want to say so publicly, because he worried that a fight might fracture Plaza Midwood’s close-knit community, which already was taking sides. By Thursday, however, Rowe and King had decided that the high road is the place you get run over. “We will do whatever is necessary to deal with this situation and be treated fairly,” they said in a news release.

In other words, the lawyers are now on the menu. Welcome, Plaza Midwood, to the other side of success.

The fight has set off a buzz both fretful and angry in Charlotte, a testament to how hungry we still are here for authenticity. The Penguin is a simple restaurant, a blue-collar joint with fine, cheap food and a let-it-ride attitude. To Charlotteans, it’s not only one of our few truly hip places, but the place we most often pointed at to show others we were capable of hipness.

And now? The Ballentines promise the new Penguin will be the same, with one small exception: The place that proudly flipped the spatula at the chain restaurant culture will be pursuing franchise opportunities.

In Plaza Midwood, the reaction has been more personal. The Penguin sparked a business renaissance there, showing others that you could be true to this rugged neighborhood – and still be successful. It spawned similar places – restaurants and shops that have developed into a dynamic, organic community, supportive of each others’ successes, different.

The businesses and customers celebrated that difference, occasionally with a sneer at Charlotte’s banking culture and Starbucks sippers. But what’s made Plaza Midwood thrive is what’s made much of Charlotte a place we want to be – entrepreneurship, big and small, a sense of wanting more, wanting better. Lulu and Zada Jane’s and Soul? They came to the neighborhood because of the lower rent and committed clientele – the opportunity to make a dollar. You can put a tattoo on it, but it’s still business.

And so comes the byproduct of that culture. A fully lawyered dispute. A family that will move on without the guys who brought its old restaurant to prominence. And now, two guys trying to get what’s theirs – most likely a bigger buyout, but at the risk of dividing a community.

Brian Rowe struggled with that this past week, at his new counter in his new restaurant.

“There’s good change,” he said, “and there’s bad change.”

And, maybe for Plaza Midwood, there’s change that’s inevitable.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Could Charlotte fall out of love with the Panthers?

Once upon a time, Charlotte loved its pro basketball team. We threw it a parade after a last-place inaugural season. We quivered with pride at its first playoff series win. It was a prominent symbol of our new prominence as a city. We couldn’t imagine that changing.

It did, of course, and when we look back a decade to the end of the Charlotte Hornets, we usually point to owner George Shinn’s lurid sexual assault trial and his arrogant expectation of a publicly funded arena. But before all of that, something already had changed. Shinn, who began mumbling early about a better arena, had decided to let popular but expensive players go, including Alonzo Mourning. A merely good team seemed good enough for him.

It was then that we realized our pro franchise cared a little more about money than we wanted. By the time the Hornets came looking in earnest for that arena, well, Charlotte wasn’t so much in love anymore.

Today, the Carolina Panthers open their home schedule with the wrong kind of vibe. The team has spent the offseason jettisoning popular players and stashing the savings from those departures. Jerry Richardson, once the owner Charlotte could count on to not raise our eyebrows, has shoved his sons out the door and left his respected head coach a lame duck.

On the field, most experts pick the Panthers to be adequate at best, which leaves us right about where we left them, with one winning season since 2005. Except that you’ll pay more to watch, thanks to an increase in ticket prices.

Richardson has been characteristically quiet about it all, other than an interview with the team-owned Roar magazine. In that May chat, he defended the ticket increase by explaining that the Panthers’ revenues are in the bottom half of the NFL, which is a lot like complaining about living in one of the smaller houses on Queens Road West.

It could be that the team is being prudent with free agents and big contracts in the face of NFL labor uncertainty. But fan bases want their teams to be smart with money, not just thrifty – and other teams are spending, many of them smartly, to win.

The Panthers? They have the feel of a franchise that’s calculating how much it has to spend to keep its fans happy enough. The early answer from those fans: More. The team avoided a TV blackout this week by selling out hours before Thursday’s deadline – a troubling sign for a home opener.

Could Charlotte fall out of love with its pro football team? It happens. Sports industry guru Marc Ganis regularly sees complacency develop between cities and their pro franchises, even in the NFL. Often, he says, it’s because management and marketing get stale. Almost always, it’s because of this: “Expectations for success on the field aren’t met.”

All of which is standard sports page stuff – until teams start wanting some help with a stadium.

Last month, the Observer reported that Panthers President Danny Morrison had two meetings with City Manager Curt Walton. Of interest to the team is a 20-ish-acre tract of vacant land near the stadium on West Morehead Street. Could be a spot for a new stadium. Could be a place for a profitable team-owned parking lot, which the Panthers have pined for in the past.

The asking price for the land was $40 million a couple years back. It’s probably less now, and it’s available with a phone call to a commercial Realtor. So why the need to chat up the city manager? A hint: The current stadium was built with about $50 million of land and early development contributions from the city and county.

That was a good deal for Charlotte then, and it perhaps could be again when the team inevitably asks for new help. It’s difficult to imagine Charlotte losing its affection for the Panthers and Richardson, who has historically made so many right moves.

“I just don’t see the Panthers becoming complacent,” says Ganis, who is a Richardson fan.

But it happens. It happens in cities with richer sports histories and deeper-rooted fan bases. It happens because teams assume fans will always come, and that cities will always stay in love.

What happens then? Says Ganis: “Teams get rude awakenings.”

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dear CMS: Thanks for sharing. We think.

To: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials and the Board of Education

The parents of CMS students would like to express our gratitude for the candor and insight you’ve provided us this year regarding the important job you’re doing deciding the future of our schools.

We have asked for years to better understand how you arrive at these important decisions, and you’ve responded this summer and fall by communicating in detail not only your deliberations on schools and student assignment, but all the reports, calculations and steps leading to those deliberations. Thank you.

Now please, make it stop.

Last week, you released “The Case for Continuous Improvement: A Comprehensive Review of CMS,” a report that contained a list of 32 schools that could be targeted for closing, or consolidation, or maybe expansion. On Thursday, the list grew by five schools. It could get even bigger. Or smaller. You aren’t sure.

The report was released at the latest in a series of public meetings at which the school board has developed “guiding principles” for student assignment, then discussed those principles, then revised them and discussed them again, just so we could know exactly what you were thinking.

We appreciate that. We asked for it. But, well, you know how you go to a party and ask someone how work is going, and he tells you he’s glad you asked because it’s not going well and his boss never listens to him and he might be thinking about getting a new job but he’s worried about a gap in health insurance coverage because he really needs to get rid of this cyst right here?

What we’re trying to say is: CMS has a bad case of TMI.

That’s “Too Much Information,” and it seems as if you agree. At that Tuesday session, board member Trent Merchant said fretfully of the list of 32: “We need to do a lot of homework before we throw it out for public discussion.” In an e-mail to staffers, superintendent Peter Gorman said: “Whenever lists are made, anxieties rise.”

He was right. Parents at schools on the list freaked out. Because while transparency is a fine goal, transparency without enough context can scare people.

Now, we all know there’s a crisis of confidence in CMS. The public sees it as an unresponsive, unpredictable monolith, and parents are tired of being unsure which school their children will be in next year, in three years, in 10. It’s why the board wisely has stressed stability this year – not only as its top “guiding principle,” but right down to the civil tone in which board members disagree.

That new tone is very intentional. A flammable debate gives the impression of uncertainty – that whoever shouts loudest wins the next battle. A civil, informed discussion has the best chance of bringing everyone together.

And boy, are we getting informed.

Really, we appreciate it. We had no idea until reading “The Case for Continuing Improvement” this week that there were statistics called FCI (Facility Condition Index) and PCI (Performance Cost Indicator). But, well, you know how sometimes you have a high schooler who is buried in math homework, and you lean over to help but see words like “theoretical and real standard deviation,” so you decide instead to say, “hang in there”?

Hang in there.

Let us know when you have something a little firmer to share.

And if it involves messing with our school? Then you’ll have some explaining to do.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A choice to keep the wonder in motion

Jimmy Brown’s daughter was 10 when she told him she wanted a model train to chug around the family Christmas tree. Jimmy had wanted trains, too, when he was young boy, but his family couldn’t afford them. This time, he bought his daughter three.

On Christmas morning 20 years ago, they set up the two-rail track and built Lego houses and watched the H0-scale trains shoosh-shoosh past them. By the time Jennifer’s birthday arrived two months later, Jimmy had more trains in mind. And when the daughter’s interest inevitably waned, the father’s interest didn’t. Jimmy loved his trains. His wife, Carole, wasn’t quite as smitten.

She called them his “big-boy toys,” and she smiled when he went a little wild buying them, and again when the trains needed a new home – the second floor of the family’s music store on Main Street in Albemarle. He tore up the room and built tables to crawl around and under, and when the trains outgrew that space, he did the same one floor up.

Soon those tables also were lined with tracks, and Carole decided something was missing. She built houses and churches for the trains to roll past, and they added model gas stations and businesses. Eventually, they had two wide, homemade tables, each more than 30 feet long, with multiple levels and multiple landscapes. Jimmy had almost a dozen boxes to control the power and the trains. Two rows of small monitors followed their progress.

Word got around. One day, their pastor’s wife called to tell them she wanted to bring a kindergarten class over to see Jimmy’s trains. Other classes followed, and at Christmas, when Albemarle held a downtown celebration, Jimmy invited folks in. Hundreds climbed the stairs to be wowed.

About a decade ago, Jimmy decided that each Friday and Saturday, he would open the third floor for free to anyone who walked in the door. People came from Albemarle, from Stanly County, from Charlotte and beyond. Jimmy told the adults his story of a trainless boyhood, and he built a small table so the kids could have trains to touch.

“He really loved to see those kids,” Carole said Friday morning, near that table on the third floor of the Albemarle Music Store. Two months ago, on July 3, Jimmy died. He had battled several ailments in recent years. He was 76.

In the days after Jimmy’s death, it occurred to his wife that she knew very little about operating his trains. She could flip the main power switch, but the control boxes and maintenance and repairs? She was clueless. Maybe it would be best to dismantle the tracks and close the museum so she could concentrate on the music store below.

“I thought about it,” she said, as an engineer’s car powered by. Instead, she made another choice. Each Friday, Jimmy’s friend, J.W., walks up the steps to check the trains and switches and get them ready for the weekend. Last week, Carole said, a large group of kids showed up from Charlotte to see the display.

“His big-boy toys,” she said again, loud enough to be heard over the accumulation of wheels on tracks. It can get noisy in this room, with two dozen trains running at a time. Every now and then, she comes upstairs, where she can walk around and listen to the sound that filled the spaces of their lives, so long and so steady, she said, “that after a while, you don’t even hear it.”



Here's a look at - and a listen to - Jimmy Brown's trains, taken Friday: