Mayor Jennifer Roberts just polished off her first 100 days in office atop Charlotte’s city government. The Agenda sat down with her in her 15th floor office at the Government Center to talk jobs, the city’s plan for Eastland Mall and what lies next in her political aspirations.
The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Last week, I was down at the new Movement Mortgage headquarters. They moved from Charlotte to Fort Mill. LPL Financial also moved over the border. What options do we have a city to be competitive?
I look at Charlotte as a region. What I know is people in Fort Mill come to the theater here, they come to Panthers games, they come shop here. And Fort Mill is paying for their schools. We’re sharing costs, expenses and income. I think what we want to do is compete as a region.
I’ve been to Washington three or four times since I’ve been in office. What I hear from the federal agencies that work with us is, we need to think better regionally. When you look at transportation, land planning, water resources, those are all regional assets.
South Carolina has a different tax structure than North Carolina. I know that can be a challenge. I know companies have located here in the Uptown area because they want to be where creative folks are living. They want to be right next to the theater, they want to be able to watch the Hornets game without driving for an hour and figuring out the parking. They want to walk or they want to ride the light rail. That will be attractive for a lot of folks who want to be in the center of activity.
So there are folks who are going to go look for bigger land sites. We don’t have a 600-acre site or a 100-acre site for a greenfield development. Go to Lancaster County. Go to Union County. That’s fine. But for the ones who want that innovation, who want that synergy and want that density of talent and the ability to really create more innovation that way — we’re going to focus on what we’re competitive in.
Q: Did Charlotte market the Eastland Mall property as a potential corporate campus?
Eastland is under discussion with a lot of people in a lot of different ways. There are some challenges there in terms of other things that have grown up since Eastland.
Eastland was a great attraction as a shopping center before there was Northlake, before there was Concord Mills, before there was the Arboretum, before there was Ballantyne. And so a lot of things have overcome that. Part of the challenge of the 21st century is we have to be nimble and responsive. If we have to do it 10 acres as a time, that’s OK.
We’re just not sure with the way that transportation networks work and the competition that exists, that it can be a destination like it was before. We’ve moved into a different time.
There’s a school in the final phases of being approved for 10 of the 80 acres. That’s a start. I think it would be great to have a school there. Some of the neighbors there are thinking it has to be all one thing at once. I don’t know if that’s possible.
Q: But one of the challenges with a school is you don’t want to have the community walking through a school campus.
We have a school right there (pointing out the window). We have three schools: We have Trinity Episcopal, we have the Lab School, we have three schools in walking distance of ImaginOn, and they’re right in the middle of the business district.
There’s all kinds of commercial activity around a lot of our schools. They are not impediments to having other mixed use developments.
It’s actually safer. It’s like New York, right? It’s safer to have a bunch of people’s eyes on the street, officers walking as well. This kind of mixed use is what people want now. It’s what young people want now.
With Eastland, we have so many people interested, we will see that development take place and occur. It’s way past time to have that happen.
Q: On the other end of town, in West End, there’s a lot of interest and development. How do we make sure we do development right on the west side?
That’s a continuing conversation. The challenge is that those close-in neighborhoods are going to be at a premium. These are just economic market forces. Unless the city is wiling to buy certain parcels or give tax breaks — which we don’t have legal authority to do under North Carolina law — we have challenges.
If we want to do tax deferral for elderly people who have been in their homes for a certain amount of time, we have to ask the legislature to give us permission. Right now, they’re not into local control. They’re into controlling everything from Raleigh. It’s not on our legislative agenda right now.
We do want to help seniors stay in their homes. Gentrification is an issue. We’re just going to have to keep talking with the private sector to find that compromise.
Q: I feel this issue is also tied up with the conversation about creating diversity in neighborhood schools. Are they any levers you can pull?
I think it’s happening in some areas organically. Some of the Uptown schools are nicely integrated. Some of the close in neighborhoods are kind of organically doing that. Looking at the bigger picture, the concentrations of poverty, there has to be some adjustment of the school boundaries, but that’s not going to do it alone.
When you’re talking about housing patterns, you’re looking at long-term. That’s not going to change overnight.
Q: There’s precedent for Charlotte mayors to join presidential cabinets. Do you see a place for you in a President Hillary Clinton administration?
Right here in Charlotte. I look to be a good collaborator with whoever ends up in the White House. I have a lot to do in Charlotte. Charlotte is at a critical time.
I think a lot my skills are really helpful. I’m collaborative, I’m multilingual, I’ve lived overseas. I know we need to be a global player. I also care a lot about education. I think I’m in the right place.