Saturday, March 26, 2011

Uptown's villain: Should he be out of the game?

The most reviled man in uptown arrives just in time for the special meeting of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. He slides into the second row of public seating, hardly noticed by the commissioners and others who will soon speak of him, although not by name.

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and the board is here for a presentation called “Urban Parks and AAA Baseball.” It’s a pep rally of sorts, new life for an old idea – bringing minor league baseball to an uptown stadium.

Five years ago, the board approved a land deal that would make that idea happen, a complicated swap of property vetted and approved by city and county officials, as well as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

Then one man, Jerry Reese, delayed it all.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in all my time serving in public,” says Dumont Clarke, a five-term commissioner.

“One individual, through abuse of process,” said Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners.

Privately, officials are less careful with their words, including the former City Council member who recently asked me: “Is he crazy?”

No, says Reese.

But he is the most formidable kind of foe – a man with a calling and a law degree.

He is 59 years old, a Charlotte commercial real estate attorney. He is motivated, both philosophically and financially, to want something different for Charlotte than minor league baseball. He is driven, he says, by a belief that Charlotte should think bigger – a perspective this city has long embraced.

And yet, fingers point his way at the YMCA. People at his Myers Park church have been less than friendly. “It hasn’t been fun to be ostracized,” he says. “None of this is easy.”

But he believes he’s right.

And he’s not going away.

Dreams and lawsuits

“A smart lawyer,” Dumont Clarke says about Jerry Reese, although not by name. The board meeting is more than an hour old. The commissioners have heard from the Knights, who still covet an uptown address. But it’s not close to happening, and Clarke is trying to explain why, diplomatically.

Tim Newman, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, put it this way later: “The one thing I hear people say more than anything is ‘That son of a gun kept us from building a minor league baseball stadium when we could have got it done.’ ”

Except they don’t say “son of a gun.”

The battle began in 2006, when Reese unveiled a site development plan that he said could bring a major league baseball team to Second Ward, on the southeast edge of uptown. Specifically, that team was the Florida Marlins, who had contacted him and expressed an interest in being someplace other than Florida.

Reese, a Catawba County native and UNC Chapel Hill law grad, had been part of Charlotte’s public conversation once before, when he proposed in 2002 an arena on top of an expanded Convention Center. That idea went nowhere, and Charlotte officials were similarly cool to his Second Ward plan.

Charlotte, they said, wasn’t ready for major league baseball, so they turned to another ballpark idea – a privately built stadium that would house the Knights. A spurned Reese did what lawyers do – he sued. Five times.

And he lost. Five times.

But the lawsuits held up stadium progress enough for the recession to deliver a gut punch to any hopes the Knights had of selling luxury suites and sponsorship for a $50-$60 million stadium.

“I’ve saved the city from a major mistake,” says Reese.

That error, he believes, is not thinking grandly. “Demographically, economically, we’re a major city,” he says. “We have a man’s body but an adolescent mind.”

Reese still has an alternative – a $4 billion plan called Brooklyn Renaissance that boasts 100-plus acres of retail, office, housing and a major league baseball stadium.

“I think he’s a visionary,” says Duncan Morton, a Charlotte surgeon and former Reese client. “There are visionaries who are made fun of, criticized, ridiculed – and lo and behold some of them turn out to be right.”

For the plan to happen, however, the city and county would have to sell Reese land in Second Ward, a prospect that’s hard to imagine given how folks in power feel about him at the moment. Reese shoos that notion away. “Frankly, I don’t feel that I’ve burned that many bridges,” he says, and he points to the visitor’s authority as a relationship he’s kept “cordial.”

True, says Newman: “My rule is to always have an open ear to things – no matter how preposterous they sound – if they are well-meaning. I felt Jerry was well-meaning.”

Correcting an error?

At Tuesday’s county commissioners’ meeting, speakers also mention Reese in the past tense. His five lawsuits are dead. The uptown parks and baseball live on, so long as the board extends a lease agreement that would allow the Knights time to put financing and plans together. Commissioners, who must decide before the fall, seem to favor the idea.

If it happens? “I will challenge the resolution extending the lease,” Reese says later.

Challenge it how?

“Sue them.”

That would add to the $750,000, not to mention his time, that Reese estimates he’s spent on this issue. He insists he’s not litigious, but that the courts are the only way he can correct a public error. That’s what he saw again at the meeting. “That was a conversation that should go on in Greensboro, not a major city,” he says.

It’s an attitude long celebrated here – that Charlotte should strive to be better than it is, better than our sibling cities, and that to do so we have to push on past others’ reluctance.

But sometimes, we also admire someone who realizes when he’s reached his final out.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A peek at the past shines a light on today

“Do School Changes Baffle You?”
– Charlotte News headline, 1960

Last month, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials had the last of their items moved out of the Education Center, an employee found some large binders in a trash bin. They didn’t look like they should be trash.

There were four in all, dark blue and dusty. They were filled with old newspaper clippings.

“I opened them and went ‘ohhhhhh,’?” said CMS spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry, who had the binders brought to a conference room at the Government Center. “I saw names like Garinger. I’d only known that name on a school.”

The clips begin in 1958, a year after Charlotte schools integrated. They end in 1964, four years after the city and county school systems consolidated. They include news stories and features, editorials and photos. They are charming and disturbing and maybe a little too recognizable, in that way history can be.

Charlotte was at the front end of a boom then, and the clips reflect a city growing like a gangly teen. “Suburban school trend already apparent in Charlotte,” said a prophetic headline to one 1959 article. Another, from 1963, examined a proposal to purchase 20 mobile classrooms for $100,000. It was, school officials stressed, a solution that was “temporary.”

There’s plenty more to make you smile. “Today’s kids mature faster,” said one earnest 1959 headline, while one photo, also from 1959, featured Superintendent Elmer H. Garinger’s secretary, Miss Jean Little, sitting tidily at her desk. “Beauty in Business,” read the photo’s headline, almost quaint in its political incorrectness.

Then there were the Observer articles about the N.C. Medical Society protesting what it saw as the promotion of socialism in school textbooks. The Medical Society, according to one clipping, believed the textbooks endorsed a philosophy that had Congress on the verge of legislation guaranteeing health care for all.

“Socialized medicine,” the group called it.

Recognize that? How about this big-type headline: “BOARD PONDERS BIGGER OPERATION, LESS CASH.” Or: “Your children will find classrooms more crowded.” Or this: “West Side of Charlotte Feeling Neglected.”

Those headlines topped budget-related stories that examined the debate over how much the city should spend on new schools, which neighborhoods should get them, and which were feeling like they weren’t getting much of anything.

And as now, it all was argued against the backdrop of class and race.

“School Board Hears Demand,” read one 1960 headline, which outlined student assignment friction between Charlotte’s blacks and whites. Since integration, blacks had been pushing for their children to attend better schools in white neighborhoods, even if it meant transporting students across assignment lines.

“I will exhaust every remedy to see that my son will receive a desegregated education,” said one mother, trying to get her son into a Dilworth school. It’s not hard to imagine those exact words, and that geography, in a story on this page today.

And yes, the issues then were triggered by different dynamics. Budget writers were deciding on which programs and services to add, not the cuts we’re facing now. Schools were moving away from segregation, not inching back toward it, as critics say CMS is now.

But pull the lens back, and we’re essentially asking the same questions of ourselves – questions about money and fairness, about balancing what’s best for our kids with what’s good for someone else’s.

And still, even now: How equal can we make separate? And is that the kind of equal we want?

Fifty years – and the answers still elude us.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The right to remain hateful

Not long ago, I thought it might be fun to write about spending some time moderating comments and complaints on our web site,

A few hours, maybe, or even a day – enough to offer a glimpse at how technology has made ugliness so very easy and accessible.

Then I decided I might also spend a day at Starbucks to reveal that some of us have caffeine issues. In other words: Duh. We know we’re ugly, and we know, too, that the problem is larger than technology. Keyboards and without keyboards, more of us seem emboldened to say out loud whatever noxious or hurtful notion crosses our minds.

This past week, the U.S. Supreme Court reminded us how frustrating, challenging and, ultimately, valuable that can be.

The Court ruled that Kansas preacher Fred Phelps and his hateful Westboro Baptist Church followers were constitutionally protected from punishment when they picketed outside the 2006 funeral of Matthew Snyder, a 20-year-old Marine killed in Iraq.

The protected speech that day included a sign that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Another said: “God Hates Fags,” although Snyder wasn’t gay.

It is vile speech. Cruel speech. You can choose your own damning adjective. And what makes the ruling more difficult is that the Court is demanding that we take this speech seriously. Why?

Because it’s a part, however crude, of “matters of public import,” as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.

(It might make you smile, however, that Westboro owes some thanks to none other than Hustler Magazine, whose cases the Ccourt cited as precedent in the protections offered to outrageous speech. Strange bedfellows, indeed.)

It’s elementary, really, when you step back and strip away emotion. But that’s a difficult thing to do with hate speech, because words that intend to hurt usually do.

Even the court, with its 8-1 verdict, had some struggles with this. In a passionate dissent, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the Westboro picketers inflicted severe pain, intentionally. At what point, Alito asks, does public debate become a form of assault?

It is a struggle we face with our own public debates, from anonymous commenters to one very public elected official.

Back in January, county commissioner Bill James called homosexuals “sexual predators” in an e-mail to his colleagues and in subsequent communications on his web site. His fellow commissioners responded with a resolution pledging support for tolerance – a weak gesture, I wrote then, when they could have confronted James about the dangers that come with wrongly demonizing a whole population.

Now James is predictably back at it – again calling homosexuals “sexual predators” in recent e-mails dealing with men having sex in areas of a Mecklenburg park. While it’s a given that public sex should be prosecuted, James had no evidence that anyone in the park was preying on children. Their behavior was enough, he said.

Just to be clear, he said: “Homosexuals are sexual predators at their core.”

There’s no need, again, to cite all the research that overwhelmingly debunks that premise. And we can take solace that time is pushing James further to the fringe of the conversation on gays and lesbians. Yes, many among us continue to struggle with homosexuality, its morality, its place among the institutions we grew up honoring – but fewer believe that gays are evil at their core.

That’s what the Supreme Court reminded us this past week – that speech evolves, that debate evolves, and that evolution comes not from eliminating the most offensive parts of the conversation, but by confronting them and using them to help frame what we think.

It’s not easy to do. Not when the words are painful, or ugly, and not when they can bring harm – or invite it. And so we struggle each day with what gets condemned and what gets allowed. And we know, deep down, that while it might be more satisfying to reach for our “delete” buttons, it’s more valuable to at least consider “reply.”