Charlotte's new librarian-in-chief
Plus: CMS jumped at proposal to pay speaker $25,000, emails show; 4 Charlotte bars fined for Covid violations; Apartments planned for Fourth Ward; Gibbie Harris on masks; Joe Bruno here through 2026
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Q&A: Four months after arriving from Seattle, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s new CEO has a vision ‘to change and adapt’
By Lindsey Banks
Marcellus “MT” Turner is almost four months into his new position as the CEO and chief librarian of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system, and he’s got some big plans — like the recent removal of library fines, for example.
Turner, 57, is originally from Mississippi, right outside the city of Jackson. He received his bachelor’s degree from Mississippi University for Women and a master’s in library science at the University of Tennessee.
From there, he started working at an academic library at East Tennessee State University before switching to public libraries. His 30-year career has carried him to libraries across the country from Illinois to Colorado to Washington. Most recently, he served as the executive director and chief librarian of the Seattle Public Library for 10 years. Now, he said he would love to end his career in Charlotte.
The Ledger sat down with Turner to learn more about what landed him in Charlotte, his plans for the library system and what books he recommends everyone should read (or listen to). Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q. What attracted you to Charlotte?
Charlotte’s library system has been well-known and well-regarded in the library world. They were one of the first libraries to win Library of the Year back in the ’90s, so there’s always been a little space in the back of my head saying, “What is Charlotte doing?”
I knew a few people who worked here, and I knew they were good people and really working hard for the profession. I knew that the search committee was interested in restoring some of that glory to the library system that the previous administration had built in. From the personal side, I enjoy the fact that my job allows me to work in many different places, and I hadn’t lived in the South in 25-plus years, so I was really interested in getting back here. I would be very happy if my career ended here.
Q. You’re entering your fourth month in this new position. How’s it going?
It’s warm here. I got here on April 4, and I said, “Oh my God, it’s hot.” I was telling someone and they said, “If you’re already turning on your air conditioning in April, you’re going to have a real problem.”
But it’s been wonderful. The people are so welcoming. The staff is amazing. I have met so many people here in the city.
Q. Have you made any connections in the community yet?
I’ve met really wonderful people who believe in libraries and who believe in the city of Charlotte and the county of Mecklenburg. It liberates your thinking around what you can do.
I’ve had great conversations with the Levine Museum of the New South and Discovery Place. I’m going to the Mint Museum next week. I’ve met Tom Gabbard with Blumenthal next door. Just wonderful people doing great work.
I had a chance to meet the superintendent of schools, met presidents of the colleges and universities and met the president of Johnson & Wales. I’m just excited about what all of that offers. The community has opened its doors.
Q. How are libraries changing?
Libraries are like any industry. We have to change and adapt to the way people use us, and people are becoming more digital. They’re becoming more mobile, so we’re really going to have to step into that space. We’re going to have to reach the community where they are; we can’t rely on a presence of “you’re coming to me.”
The future of libraries is how do we respond to disruptors that occur like AI? Is artificial intelligence going to step into a space where people are choosing books by computer as opposed to coming in and asking the library? What are we going to do about urbanization and density? Do we have enough libraries to serve the many people coming into the city?
Q. How does the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system fit into the national conversation about the future of libraries?
We’re going to have to help our city solve some of the social issues that occur in their communities. My biggest challenge right now is I don’t know where we sit with the pandemic. We’re coming out of it, so I haven’t gotten a real glimpse of what uptown looks like in that environment. I don’t know what the most pressing issues are for the city.
I know housing affects every city, but I would imagine education is a problem in most cities. We’re just going to have to look for ways to help. I believe that we have a role and a responsibility to help the city try to address those issues.
Q. What are your goals for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library?
I have one job. My job is to make sure that Charlotte Mecklenburg Library makes a difference in the lives of our users — making sure that where we’re located matters to the people who live here, making sure that we’re buying the resources that they need to do what they need, making sure that we have technology that helps them with their work — that’s my goal, to ensure that we continue doing that.
We need to make sure that the people of this community know that we’re here to help them. They are not just another person walking in the door. We may not understand their culture, but we respect what their culture brings to the table. They will be greeted warmly. Their visit with us is not an imposition on us. So that’s what being a socially conscious library is about.
Q. Why remove library fines?
I’ve had classmates who moved quite often, and a book gets lost in the move or the hours of the library just didn’t match for the parent or caregiver to get the book returned. So much is out of the kid’s control, and just being able to return that ownership, that responsibility, that authority to them goes a long way. I’m hopeful it brings people back. I’m hopeful that it allows that person to achieve whatever it is that they need.
We have three goals that we serve: educational, informational and recreational. I’m hoping that they can find opportunities in any one of those pursuits through one of our libraries.
Q. How’s the fundraising going for the new Main Library?
The fundraising is going very well. We are very fortunate that the county is supporting us in this effort, but the for-profit dollars are going very well. People are investing in the library because they recognize the value that it gives to the community.
Q. Do you have any book recommendations?
One of the things I’m going to love about being back in Charlotte is I’m driving more, so I can listen to books on tape. I just finished listening to a book that came out three years ago which is set here in North Carolina: “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens.
Oh my God, that book is good. I pull books based on the title — you know, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” — well, I did. I pulled it and I thought, “This is an interesting title.”
I’m listening to “Men Without Women” by Haruki Murakami. It’s seven short fictional stories, each one of a man telling stories about how important women were in their lives, and it’s absolutely amazing. I didn’t know what I thought the title was going to be about, but it was intriguing enough for me to pull it off the shelf.
I’m just amazed and awed by the talent of writers and authors.
Lindsey Banks, a senior at UNC Chapel Hill, is The Ledger’s summer reporting intern.
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Emails show CMS was eager to book pricey speaker; ‘$25K total? Totally doable’
Newly released public records show that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials didn’t bat an eye when told of the $25,000 cost to have controversial speaker Ibram X. Kendi as the keynote speaker at an online conference last month.
Emails show that CMS Chief of Staff LaTarzja Henry first emailed Kendi’s representative on Dec. 2, 2020, to request that the author deliver a keynote address that would allow CMS to help “work towards becoming an anti-racist organization.”
After some back-and-forth, Kendi’s booking agent with his publisher, Penguin Random House, told Henry that “Dr. Kendi normally turns down add on offers that don’t start with the full fee of $20,000 plus $5000 for a student Q&A.”
Henry replied: “$25K total? Totally doable.”
The emails show that CMS officials were eager to book Kendi as part of an effort to combat systemic racism that they say is harming student achievement. They were aware he is a controversial writer and speaker. The district had previously distributed Kendi’s book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” to CMS leaders and principals, and it had been “met with mixed reactions — all expected,” Henry wrote.
The emails indicate that Henry, who as chief of staff is Superintendent Earnest Winston’s top aide, consulted with Winston before booking Kendi.
The issue of how to teach about race and racism was a hot topic at last week’s school board meeting, with members of the public speaking passionately on both sides of “critical race theory.”
“How to Be an Antiracist” was published in 2019, and sales have surged in the last year, following the killing of George Floyd and the related social justice protests. It hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction.
Republicans in the General Assembly have criticized Kendi’s views on teachings about race, which they say amount to reverse racism and advocating for discrimination. They also circulated quotes of Kendi’s writings that are critical of capitalism.
The emails containing CMS’ contract with Kendi were released publicly last week, in response to several public records requests by media and parents. CMS typically releases public records on a website for all to see.
News organizations had sought the video of his remarks, but CMS made it available only to those who requested access and did not provide a link that could be shared with the public. That follows the terms of Kendi’s contract with CMS. CMS’ public records portal shows that more than 50 people have requested materials related to Kendi’s participation in the CMS conference.
The emails between CMS and Kendi’s representative show that had CMS opted for an in-person event, it would have cost even more: “If you’re asking for an in person presentation plus add on Q&A his fee would be $30,000 plus 1st class travel for one, economy travel for 1, 2 hotel rooms, professional ground in both cities and meals,” the Penguin Random House official wrote.
CMS has an annual budget of $1.8B. —TM
4 Charlotte hotspots fined for breaking Covid rules
Four Charlotte bars agreed to fines last week to settle charges that they violated Covid rules.
You’ll recall that for months, bars couldn’t serve alcohol indoors under state rules intended to reduce the spread of Covid. But some hotspots persevered anyway — and a few of them got caught. You might not be surprised to learn that two were in South End, one in LoSo and one uptown.
Here are descriptions of the four violations, according to the files of the N.C. ABC Commission that The Ledger obtained under public records laws:
Drinking at Lost & Found: On Dec. 4, 2020, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police went to Lost & Found on West Bland Street in South End and “saw they were overcrowded, were not physically distancing and allowing the consumption of alcoholic beverages indoors in violation of Executive Order 180.” Lost and Found agreed to a $5,000 fine in connection with this incident and a similar one that took place in January.
From the files of the N.C. ABC Commission: Revelers at Lost & Found in South End on Dec. 4, 2020. At the time, Covid numbers were increasing and bars were supposed to ensure social distancing, and they weren’t supposed to serve alcohol indoors.
Dancing at Queen Park Social: On March 13, 2021, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police responded to a complaint of a “large party in the parking lot” of Queen Park Social on Yancey Road in LoSo. Officers found “approximately 250-300 people in the parking lot, who were all standing around, dancing and drinking alcohol with a live band that was playing music.” Almost all the customers “were not wearing masks or following any social distancing guidelines.” Queen Park Social is permitted as a restaurant, which means that “patrons needed to be seated.” Queen Park Social agreed to a $500 fine.
Alcohol served at SIP: On Dec. 26, 2020, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police arrived at SIP on North Tryon Street uptown and found “customers inside the business consuming alcoholic beverages while seated at tables.” At the time, bars were not allowed to serve alcohol indoors. SIP agreed to a $1,500 fine.
Hot pockets don’t make Pins Mechanical Co. a restaurant: On Feb. 13, 2021, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police showed up at 4:30 p.m. at Pins Mechanical Co. in South End and found “dozens of patrons inside consuming alcohol, who were in close person to person contact with many patrons not wearing masks.” It’s a bar that wasn’t supposed to be serving alcohol indoors, but the manager “thought they were exempt from the private bar restrictions” because they served “hot pockets, cereal and peanut butter and jelly Uncrustables.” Pins Mechanical agreed to a $1,300 fine.
Plans for residential building in Fourth Ward Historic District
An Alabama developer is planning an apartment building at Graham and 7th streets uptown, in the middle of the Fourth Ward Historic District.
Daniel Corp. of Birmingham would like to build a two-story parking structure with five levels of residential units on top of that, says Collin Brown of Alexander Ricks, who is representing the company in a rezoning for the project, which was filed last week. He said because plans are preliminary, he doesn’t know how many units it would contain.
Building in a historic district can be tricky, because in addition to running the usual gauntlet of city rezoning approvals, developers need the blessing of the Historic District Commission. It makes sure that new buildings fit the character of the surrounding neighborhood.
Some neighbors have expressed concerns about the proposed building’s height and its effect on traffic and parking.
The 1.7-acre site on two parcels contains an old car shop, surface parking lot and a vacant storefront that used to be Fourth Ward Bread Co. It has a façade that some neighbors have expressed interest in preserving in the design of any new building:
A developer from Birmingham, Ala., is proposing a residential building at Graham and 7th streets in uptown’s Fourth Ward, on the site of an old auto repair place, surface parking lot and this vacant building that used to be a bakery. Apartment tower The Vue is in the background on the right.
The rezoning and Historic District Commission process is likely to take months. —TM
Quotable: When will we bring back the masks?
From a Mecklenburg County Health Department news conference on Friday, which took place after new local Covid data showed the number of daily cases increasing slightly, to where they were in mid-May, and hospitalizations increasing to where they were in mid-June – both down about 90% from their peaks in mid-January:
Charlotte Observer reporter: How bad do the numbers have to get before the mask requirement comes back?
Health director Gibbie Harris: We will watch that. I don’t think we’re there yet. I know that there’s not an appetite in our community for that. Unfortunately, we are seeing, as we’ve mentioned, our cases go up. We want to encourage people to get vaccinated. … Nobody wants to put that mask back on. … Things would have to change quite a bit, probably, before we ever think about any more restrictions. But we never say never.
➡️ Asked about masks in schools, Harris also said she supports guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommend unvaccinated people, including children, wear masks indoors. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has not announced a policy for this fall, but it’s hard to imagine CMS won’t follow Harris’ and the CDC’s guidance — although Union County’s school board voted last week to make masks optional for students and staff starting Aug. 1.
Council member unfiltered: In an unusually candid interview, City Council member Tariq Bokhari says he’s fighting to elect more Republicans in Charlotte, which is becoming a Democratic stronghold. And he unloads on political opponents, including planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba (“f— that guy”), council member Malcolm Graham (“Malcolm ‘Political Hack’ Graham”) and Mayor Vi Lyles (“incredibly partisan” despite “playing a kindly grandma on TV”). He also says the ParkMobile parking app is “f—ing terrible.” (Axios Charlotte)
Housing supply increases: The number of new houses listed for sale in Mecklenburg County rose to its highest June ever last month (2,449), according to new figures from the Canopy Realtor Association. But strong demand pushed the median sales price higher, to $360,000 (+20% from a year ago), and the average number of days on the market before a sale fell to 13 (down from 34 a year ago). (Canopy Realtor Association)
Wells to return to the office: Wells Fargo employees will start returning to the office Sept. 7, with workers in areas including finance, corporate risk and human resources expected to be in the office three days a week, according to an internal memo. “Our schedules will mostly resemble our pre-pandemic working approach, with additional flexibility,” the company’s chief operating officer wrote. (Observer)
Jobless rate falls: North Carolina’s unemployment rate fell to 4.6% in June, which is better than the national figure of 5.9%. The number of people employed in North Carolina, about 4.5 million, is still about 124,000 fewer than pre-pandemic. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Planning ahead: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education approved the 2022-23 school calendar. (WFAE)
Red Bull plant in Concord: Red Bull and Rauch North America plan to build a manufacturing and distribution facility at the site of the old Philip Morris plant in Concord. They plan to invest $740M on the project and create 413 jobs. (Concord Independent Tribune)
Big lightning damage: Lightning apparently struck a 13,000 s.f. house in Ballantyne Country Club on Saturday afternoon, causing extensive damage. (WBTV)
More Bruno: Award-winning Charlotte TV reporter Joe Bruno signed a 5-year deal with WSOC, renewing a contract that was to expire this summer. (Joe Bruno on Twitter)
Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:
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Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory; Reporting intern: Lindsey Banks