Friday, July 29, 2011

I'm moving. (Sort of.)

I'm packing and hauling - across the newsroom. I'm honored to be taking a position on the Observer's editorial board.

I'll continue to do columns - at least weekly - that tell our stories and talk about issues, so keep sending me your thoughts and ideas. Those columns will appear in this blog, so online readers won't notice much of a difference moving forward. In print, the columns will appear in our Opinion section instead of the Local section.

I'll also be participating in the editorial process, and I'm excited to share my perspective with editorial board members, who are among the most thoughtful people I know. Regular readers of this column know that I land center-right on many issues, especially fiscal. But not all.

As I wrote in my first metro column a year ago:

I’m 45, a husband, a dad. I’m about to become the third smartest person in my house, behind my wife who was ahead of me all along – and my 9-year-old son, who is gaining fast. I attend church each week. I like sports. I write beer reviews. I grill.

....I’ve been writing news and features and sports for almost 20 years, long enough to understand that you rarely peg folks based on first impressions, or even third impressions.

Here’s an example: If I tell you I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, which I did, some of you will get to work taping up that ideological box we like to put people in. But what if I tell you I voted for George Bush in 2000? And that I’m not entirely comfortable with the way either decided to spend my tax dollars?
Regular readers also know I welcome your thoughts and won't hesitate to discuss the topics I write about in the comments that follow. That won't change with the new gig.

I'll start on Monday. Talk with you soon.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

From one gesture, a larger harvest comes

Bill Crowder lives on 20 acres near the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He’s farmed some of that land, but he’s thought recently that he’d like to use it better. Earlier this month, his sister called with an idea that she got from reading the Sunday newspaper.

Gaye Dimmick read the same thing – a column I wrote about Chris Yost, who earlier this year invited Bhutanese refugees to turn her half-acre east Charlotte backyard into a farm. The refugees, who were farmers long ago, once again had land to tend and find worth in.

Dimmick, who has more than a dozen raised beds at her home off Central Avenue, decided she wanted to do the same for refugees. Crowder says he could plow a patch in his land if refugee families wanted to plant and harvest. There are others, too, more than a half dozen people from Mooresville to Mint Hill, making the extraordinary offer to let strangers use what’s theirs.

One of the satisfactions of writing for a newspaper is the benevolence we often see. Write about someone who’s trying to overcome hardship, and readers will hold out their hands, with kindness that can swell your heart.

But this story, and the response to it, might be about more than kindness.

For Gaye Dimmick, it is. She and her partner, Jean Wesselman, started their urban garden a few years back when Jean lost her job. They sold their harvest at farmers markets for extra income, but Jean got a job last year, and the garden became less of a priority. When Gaye read about Chris Yost, she saw an opportunity to keep her land purposeful.

There’s also this: Gaye just turned 50. “I thought, ‘Let me live my next 50 years a lot better than I lived my first.’ ”

Bill Crowder grows corn and beans and peas on his land in northeast Charlotte. Last year, his sister told him about her church starting a community garden to give food to Charlotte shelters, and he considered helping out this year. When he heard about Chris Yost, he thought of the refugees and his land. “They would get more good out of it than I will,” Bill says.

Patrice Ognodo nods at this. He’s the founder of the Neighborhood Good Samaritan Center, which for six years has helped refugees assimilate to their new home in Charlotte. Patrice is from Togo in west Africa, and he spent three years in a refugee camp before coming to the United States. Once an attorney in Togo, he drove a cab in Charlotte before one of his fares helped him start a career – and a new life – selling insurance.

Now he is seeing a different and profound kind of generosity. “We have been waiting for something like this,” he says.

Patrice has spent the last two weeks joyfully visiting backyards and other patches of land, then arranging for refugee families to come. He knows what will happen next, because it’s happening now in Chris Yost’s backyard. In that land, the refugees reclaim a small part of their lives, a part he’s heard them talking about, while they farm. He calls them their “Once upon a time” stories.

Here’s another: Once upon a time, many of us saw our land and possessions differently. We accumulated what we needed, but not necessarily all that we wanted. Now, in these hard years that follow prosperity, more of us are re-evaluating what we use and what we waste. “People are rethinking their values,” says Gaye Dimmick. Maybe these backyard farms, these unusual loans, are a product of that.

Or maybe it’s simply the generosity of some good people. That’s OK, too.

At Chris Yost’s house, by the way, the farm is flourishing. “Holy cow,” she says. “Everything’s coming up.” This past week, her refugee friends picked three bulging bags of eggplant and okra, snap peas and peppers. As usual, they knocked on her front door to share some of the bounty.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

With Charlotte Knights, commission makes an error

Four years ago, Mecklenburg County commissioners participated in a complex exchange of parcels and buildings with the city of Charlotte and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The big swap was largely for the benefit of a minor league baseball team – one that couldn’t fill half its stadium in South Carolina and wasn’t required to provide much assurance that it could afford a new center-city home.

But it was Charlotte, and it was early 2007, and back then we dealt in a prosperity that made risks seem hardly risky.

In the four years since, however, we’ve endured a recession and its suffocating residue. Some of our tax-supported risks have turned out worse than expected: The NASCAR Hall of Fame gets a third of its original attendance projections. The U.S. Whitewater Center makes money only if it doesn’t have to pay its debt.

As for the Class AAA Charlotte Knights – they’re no closer to getting the funds they need to build and live uptown.

So why is our county commission behaving like it’s still 2007?

Commissioners voted 7-2 Tuesday to take the next step toward extending the Knights lease agreement on an uptown plot of land for another year. The extension comes with a few new conditions – such as $100,000 in earnest money – that are designed to make the commission look tougher this time around. But it’s essentially the same deal – except better for the ballclub.
This time, commissioners decided to waive an important safeguard requiring the team to show its long-term financial viability within 10 days of signing the lease.

That clause was a part of two original agreements that gave a sweet deal to the Knights. The team got a patch of uptown land worth millions, plus some more millions worth of infrastructure work. It had “sole discretion” about any loans and financing it would use, and it didn’t have to provide details upfront about sponsorship and naming rights, which can account for up to half of a ballclub’s financing package.

That means the team got everything it needed for an uptown stadium, without having to prove it could actually build one and survive in it.

In Charlotte 2007, that wasn’t such an outrageous proposition. Uptown had decided that minor league baseball would improve its curb appeal, and when center city’s power brokers historically gave the nod to that type of venture, the money eventually followed.

The recession changed all that – not only for the Knights, but for the city. We’ve spent the past few years thinking smaller, not bigger. We’re reevaluating budget priorities. We’re looking harder at the risks we want to take with our money.

Or at least we should. But instead of requiring the Knights to provide signed agreements upfront for naming rights and two top-tier sponsorships, the county now proposes allowing the Knights to buy their way out of that mandate by paying another $100,000 to escrow. (Which might seem like a lot until you consider the team has been collecting years of parking revenue off that uptown parcel.) And instead of requiring the Knights to prove with audited financials that they could weather attendance falling short or costs swelling, the county is again leaving that requirement vague.

Commission chair Jennifer Roberts, among the seven who voted this week to move toward a final vote next month, says the lease extension is appropriate. The land won’t be used in the next year anyway, she says, so why not give the Knights another year to figure things out. If they do, it would be a good thing for uptown.

The thing is, she’s right. It’s not difficult to picture walking to a Third Ward ballpark after work, watching some quality baseball, looking out to see uptown’s skyscrapers draped over the outfield walls. But as we’ve learned, attendance isn’t always what we think it will be. Revenues fall short. Bills still have to be paid. If the Knights find uptown wasn’t their cure after all, they’ll likely come asking for public help, no matter how clearly a lease agreement says the county has put its wallet away. Will the commissioners choose a big, empty ballpark then?

Better to get assurances now, instead of getting caught up in how good uptown baseball might be, which is what the commission did this week, all over again. In 2007, that might have been the visionary thing to do. Now it’s just irresponsible.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A new insight takes flight

Clay Presley is at 2,700 feet when he radios in. “One mile east,” he tells the air traffic near the Rock Hill airport. The sky is clear. “We’re going to be doing a power out,” he says.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and the single-engine Cessna he’s flying sways in the warm Carolina crosswinds. Presley is working on some final flight training before he takes what’s called a “check ride” in two days. If that ride goes as he hopes, he’ll get his pilot’s license.

But first, there are some maneuvers to work on, including this one, the power out – a simulated emergency landing. “We’re practicing what you do if you lose your motor one day,” says Troy Fleming, the instructor.

Presley has piloted this landing before, but not with anyone in the back seat, changing the weight near the tail. That’s what you have to deal with in planes – the unanticipated, big and small. Clay Presley knows about the big kind.

Two years ago, he was a passenger on Flight 1549, which lost its power above New York City before Capt. Chesley Chelsey Sullenberger skimmed it safely on the Hudson River. Presley thought he was going to die that January day. Then he needed to understand why he didn’t.

And so he’s here, 2,700 feet in the sky above Rock Hill, where he flicks a switch to make the engine go quiet, and he begins to dive toward the ground again.


On the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2009, Clay Presley boarded his flight to Charlotte from New York, where he and a business associate had been exploring an acquisition. Presley owns Carolina Pad, a Charlotte company that designs school and office products. His work put him on planes regularly, maybe three or four times a month, enough that he hardly felt the bumps and sways that make other fliers jumpy.

Presley was in seat 15D on the 2:45 flight. He read the newspaper instead of listening to the flight attendant’s safety talk. He hardly noticed the takeoff – thrust, lift, smooth as usual.
Then, an explosion. “It felt as if the plane just stopped in midair,” he remembers. “As many times as I’ve flown, I’ve never experienced that kind of thing.”

His first thought: “A bomb.” Then, moments later, he remembered a colleague telling him a similar explosion that week caused by birds hitting an engine in another New York-to-Charlotte flight. Was that it? He didn’t have time to ponder. A haze – and a terrible smell – spread through the cabin.

Soon, Sullenberger was on the intercom telling the passengers to brace for impact. “I was scared to death,” Presley says, but he also found himself oddly calm. He counted rows between his and the exit row. He saw the Hudson River and coached himself to take a deep breath on impact. It was, he says now, a semi-euphoric feeling. But he was a realist, too: He grabbed his Blackberry and sent his wife, Carol, a simple email: “I love you.”

Flight 1549 hit the Hudson tail first, then front. The impact threw people against their seat restraints – “like a hard car accident,” Presley says. It was quiet for a moment as everyone absorbed that the worst hadn’t happened. Then somebody said, “Open the doors,” and when someone did, it wasn’t water that came pouring through, but light.

“Heavenly light,” Presley says.


One day later, he was on a plane again. After 1549, he and his colleague had talked about driving back to Charlotte instead of flying, but they decided to sit on a flight before takeoff and see how it felt. Flight attendants wanted to hear their story, and talking about it made the prospect of flying again a little easier.

From there, he flew at about the same pace he had before 1549. But the emotional trauma from that flight had rooted deep in him, and it surfaced when he got on other planes. He grew anxious quickly. Turbulence sent his heart drumming. He understood why some of the 1549 passengers hadn’t been on a plane since, but his business left him with little choice.

On one business trip that June, he called Sullenberger in San Francisco and met with him for a quick hello. They talked about the flight, of course, and at one point, Sully said: “How was it in the back of the plane?” Presley responded, almost sarcastically, “We were only about 40 feet apart.”

But when he thought about it later, he realized what the pilot was asking: What was it like, not knowing what was happening?

Last September, Presley flew to Wisconsin for a television documentary about 1549. There, 1549’s first officer Jeff Skiles took him up in a 1935 ?Waco biplane. Presley had flown in single-engine planes before, with his son, Brad, who has a license. This time, Skiles talked to Presley about the technical part of flying – what was happening in front of the plane. By the time Presley left for Charlotte, he knew how he could overcome the trauma.

On Oct. 2, with Troy Fleming in the right seat, Presley taxied the Cessna to the Rock Hill runway for his first flight. Fleming told him to do the takeoff. A frightened Presley said, “If you insist,” and did just that. “I was all over the place,” he says.

This time, with Fleming’s help, he understood what was happening. He learned about planes inside and out, and why they do what they do, good and bad. “I started to understand from a very elementary position what was happening that day on 1549,” he says. “How could we stay up as long as we did? What were the scenarios he was going through? I began to get it.”

Fleming has had only a handful of students who’ve decided that learning to fly is the best path to conquering their fears. “They do a lesson or two,” he says. “One guy was afraid of horses and airplanes. He flew for an hour. That was enough. Nobody has gone all the way to getting his license.”


At 2,700 feet, Presley and Fleming are tour guides. They point down to the Catawba River, the Sun City development. On a clear day, you can see Asheville from here. On this Wednesday, we settle for a spectacular view of Charlotte.

“The ability to fly around and look and see what’s here is phenomenal,” Presley says. But like any pilot, he loves the last part most. “A smooth landing – there’s not a better feeling in the world,” he says.

The Cessna crosses the river at a pace that would be serene – if it weren’t accompanied by bumps and jolts. Those, explains Fleming, are thermals. Hot air rises at a different speed coming off trees than it does water, or buildings, or asphalt. Presley nods. “The first time you say ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s going on?’ ” he says. “Eventually you don’t notice it.”

Now, he says, he has gone from being intimidated by planes to respecting them. Fleming says his student is at the level where the regular flying stuff is second nature. Now they practice the things you don’t expect. A short runway to land on. An engine outage.

That’s what’s next today. The key to power out landings, says Fleming, is managing the path of the descent. Go down too steep and you’ll arrive at your target traveling too fast. Not steep enough and your airspeed will be too slow.

A mile from the runway, the engine goes quietly to idle. Presley banks to the left, toward the airport, and begins to glide...

He thinks often about when Sully banked toward the Hudson that day, two years ago. If he knew then what he knows now, he would’ve understood better what was going on. Would he still have been scared? Of course. But knowing, even now, changes things. “It helps me deal emotionally with what happened,” he says.

At 1,500 feet, he circles toward the runway. “That’s your picture – it’s perfect,” Fleming says, looking at the monitor. “Yep,” Presley says ...

He is still sorting through it all – not just the flying part, but how 1549 will edit the chapters to come in his life. He’s always thought of himself as a positive person, he says, and he’s long tried to find a healthy mix of family, charity and business. Now he is more purposeful with the things he can control, more grateful that he has that opportunity. It’s what brought him here, to another plane, and to the license he’ll earn two days from this landing.

He takes a sharp turn toward runway 20. “Short final two zero,” he says, indicating his final approach to the runway. He comes in with the nose of the plane turned slightly right – a “crab” approach to compensate for a crosswind. He touches, left wheels first.

“Very nice,” says Fleming. Presley would’ve liked it a little smoother, but it was fine, he says. He thinks of that other power out landing, two years ago. “Sully called it an emergency landing,” he says. “The passengers called it a crash landing.” Now he understands the difference, and he laughs at that, safely on the ground, and gets ready to go up again.