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He’s helping invest in Charlotte's Historic West End
Plus: Top news of the week — CMS reveals new middle school plans — Developers rush to file rezonings — Tepper introduces new Panthers coach — Beyoncé announces Charlotte concert
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Q&A: Charles Thomas focuses on Historic West End in his role as Charlotte program director for the Knight Foundation. He discusses how he invests in the community and its development.
Charles Thomas was 6 years old when he moved to Charlotte from Spartanburg, S.C., in 1980, but he considers himself a native Charlottean. He’s an East Meck High alum, and his grandfather was born and raised in the city.
Thomas serves as the Charlotte program director of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a Miami-based foundation that fosters more informed and engaged communities across the nation.
Since Thomas joined the foundation in 2016, he’s been focused on the Historic West End neighborhood, also known as the Beatties Road Corridor, that surrounds Johnson C. Smith University in west Charlotte. The Knight Foundation supports residents’ participation in the development of their district with an eye toward advancing economic mobility.
Thomas received The Ledger’s 40 Over 40 Award in 2020 for his work with the Knight Foundation to support equitable development in the city’s Historic West End and local arts and cultural organizations.
He recently sat down with Ledger podcast host Steve Dunn of Miles Mediation and Arbitration to talk about how the Knight Foundation invests in the West End neighborhood, why involving residents in development projects is important, the revival of the Excelsior Club and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
You can listen to the full conversation on The Charlotte Ledger Podcast.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: The Knight Foundation has been focused on investing in the Historic West End neighborhood since 2015. What do those investments look like and what difference is it making in the lives of the people who live there?
We invest in three primary areas. We invest in supporting the vision of the corridor, so funding master plans and vision plans that involve the whole community contributing to what they want to see in the district. The second category is funding the residents’ capacity to participate in the development of the corridor. Then the third area is to fund amenities in the corridor.
In 2020 and 2021, we were able to open up a new ice cream parlor, Rita’s Ice Cream, Jet’s Pizza, JPMorgan Chase has opened a branch, and then Archive CLT, the best coffee shop in Charlotte, is on the corridor. Now, the majority of those businesses are Black- or Latinx-owned, and a good portion of them are residents. Those are a few examples. Over $5 million of economic development, which from a Charlotte perspective is not much, but from a West End perspective, we’re talking about three new commercial buildings that were underutilized, spaces that are now activated.
The last piece that you’ll see in the corridor is new parks and public spaces. Across from Johnson C. Smith University is a new splash pad. As you drive through the West End, you’re seeing all this wonderful art that’s recognized in the history and culture of the corridor. And one day, we will have the Excelsior Club back, a Black-founded jazz club [that] was the center of social and political life in the Historic West End and has been in disrepair. It’s been purchased, and we’d like to see it get rebuilt.
The West End is very much on the rise. The development occurs in a way that the residents that have been there — the historic residents, the Black residents — feel that they’re benefiting and that the corridor is still theirs, and that when they walk the corridor, it looks and feels like their community.
Q: How do you go about engaging residents in these projects and getting them on board?
Knight Foundation funding is focused on supporting residents being at the center of the work that we do. Whether we’re funding arts, whether we’re funding smart cities work and technology, it’s about how we do it in a way that residents feel their part and benefit. That’s how you create attachment. That’s how you create engagement in a community. The work, I would say, is not perfect in that you don’t have 100% of residents participating in the work. There’ll always be those who’ll say, “I didn't know about that.” But what we do is we find those leaders, those folks who are doing the work. They were doing the work, whether paid or not.
Q: The Excelsior Club is a jazz club that was located in a historic building that’s still there today, and there’s talk that you might be reviving it. What was the Excelsior Club, and why is it still important to the West End community?
It was founded by a member of the community, and, in its heyday, it was the place where you would go to socialize, to have a drink, to listen to some great music [and] to take a date, back in the days when the Black community had few options where they could feel safe, where they could interact with each other. It has a storied history, pre-civil rights. It was a key institution to the history of the West End, and we feel that it’s a key institution to the future of the West End.
Q: How does your work on behalf of the Knight Foundation intersect with the Excelsior Club?
With the Knight Foundation, we have funding. It’s the power of the dollar to make strategic investments, and in the Excelsior Club case, we made an investment with the city, the county, [and] the Foundation for the Carolinas to basically close the gap on the cost of acquiring the Excelsior Club. We are investors. That’s just an example of how we may use philanthropic dollars to make sure that residents are participating in a part of the development of a project and influencing it.
Typically, Charlotte tears down old buildings. This one is a challenge because it’s very dilapidated. If you go in there, it’s gutted, so more than likely, it will be a facade of the original. We’re not going to be able to keep the full structure of it because it’s just not safe. But we’re definitely going to have the spirit, and we’re right in the same location of the original Excelsior. The sign is still there. The sign looks good.
Q: What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself or to someone who’s looking to follow in your footsteps?
The mantra that I live by is, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I call it lemons-to-lemonade. It’s about perspective. Life is going to throw you a lot of curveballs, whether it’s personal or in your career, and I think the most important element is being able to have a perspective that you're going to win, that you’re successful. Not being deterred by mistakes or by failures and always thinking about them as learning opportunities have been a guiding principle for me. Being able to turn a negative situation into a positive I think has served me well.
– Complied by Lindsey Banks
➡️ Is there a deserving over-40 in your life? This is the final week to nominate them for a 40 Over 40 award!
The Ledger is accepting nominations for this year’s 40 Over 40 Awards, Presented by U.S. Bank. If you know a deserving someone aged 40+ — someone who is making Charlotte better in the nonprofit, business, arts, education or other realms — nominate that person today by filling out a short form! Deadline is Feb. 10.
This week in Charlotte: CMS plans express bus service; Plans move forward with Silver Line route and bus station; Developers rush to file rezonings; Blacklion owner reflects on closing store
On Saturdays, The Ledger sifts through the local news of the week and links to the top articles — even if they appeared somewhere else. We’ll help you get caught up. That’s what Saturdays are for.
New middle school planned: (Ledger🔒) Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and developer Childress Klein disclosed plans to build a 3-story CMS middle school with a track, baseball field and softball field in the Rea Farms area off Providence Road as well as 682 apartments, 211 townhomes and 24 single-family houses.
CMS plans express bus service: (Ledger) Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is working on an express stops bus service plan that would have about 5,000 students from 11 high school magnet programs get on and off buses at more centralized bus stops, making for express routes that enable students to leave home later and get home earlier.
Transportation plans move forward: (WCNC) The Metropolitan Transit Commission approved the original $9B plan for the Silver Line’s route running on the outskirts of uptown near the Bojangles Coliseum in east Charlotte and approved the underground concourse option of the redeveloped transit center in uptown.
School bill advances: (News & Observer) A bill that would limit discussions of sexuality in elementary school classrooms and give parents a greater ability to review instructional materials passed an N.C. Senate committee. Republicans say it enhances parents’ rights while Democrats say it would place a burden on schools and be harmful to LGBTQ students.
Former Charlotte synagogue leader charged with felony: (Observer) Evan Roy Wilkoff, a former president of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, is facing six charges of sexual exploitation of a minor and will appear in court Monday.
Beyoncé concert: (Axios) Beyoncé announced a stop at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Aug. 9 for her Renaissance tour.
Spy balloon on the way: A possible Chinese spy balloon could pass just to the north of Charlotte on Saturday. (Observer)
Wells Fargo clears out of the jukebox: (Ledger🔒) Wells Fargo said Tuesday that it will vacate the 42-story One Wells Fargo Center, the iconic “jukebox” building, as it consolidates uptown workers into 550 South Tryon and Three Wells Fargo Center on South Tryon while leaving One and Two Wells Fargo.
Developer stampede: (Ledger 🔒) Charlotte developers rushed to file rezoning changes this week to beat the Jan. 31 deadline for rezoning changes ahead of the city’s new Unified Development Ordinance, which takes effect in June, and the filings reveal plans for more than 3,300 homes, a south Charlotte middle school, massive warehouses and more.
115-acre Providence Road redevelopment: (Ledger) Levine Properties, Northwood Ravin and Horizon Development Properties announced plans Tuesday to redevelop 115 acres in the Providence Road corridor in south Charlotte with up to 1,500 new housing units, a grocery store, and retail and office space.
Tepper introduces new Panthers coach: (Observer) Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper introduced Frank Reich as the franchise’s sixth full-time head coach on Tuesday, and Tepper defended his organization's diversity and vowed to break “the old boys’ network.”
When local news dries up: (Assembly) Since 2004, more than 1,800 hometown newspapers have stopped publishing, and what’s filling the gaps isn’t always journalism. Publications like The County Compass in Pamlico County — a “shopper,” which is a newspaper-shaped collection of advertisements with a few column inches set aside for information — are becoming more common.
The making of the Picasso exhibit: (Observer, subscriber-only) Charlotte Observer writers Adam Bell and Catherine Muccigrosso take readers behind the scenes to show how the Mint Museum painstakingly prepared for the opening of the “Picasso Landscapes: Out of Bounds” exhibit that opens next week.
From the Ledger family of newsletters
Homeowners face higher property taxes: County officials released projections that show at least 85% of Mecklenburg County homeowners are likely to receive higher tax bills this year, and some of the biggest increases are projected in the “crescent” north and west of uptown and for homeowners whose properties are currently in the lowest 1/3 of values.
Wells Fargo CEO doesn’t want a raise: Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf told the bank’s board of directors that he didn’t want a raise for last year, and the board obliged, keeping his total pay at $24.5M for 2022, according to a regulatory filing last week.
Deer-friendly fence in south Charlotte: The spiky portion of a fence in the Enclave at Providence community where dozens of deer had been fatally impaled trying to jump it has been removed after surrounding residents asked the neighborhood to make the fence more deer-friendly.
Doppelgänger alert: Chris Wilcox, co-host of the “Woody & Wilcox” morning radio show on 106.5 The End, looks strikingly similar to new Carolinas Panther head coach Frank Reich when they’ve both got on their hats, glasses and headsets.
Ledger Podcast joins Queen City Podcast Network: The Charlotte Ledger Podcast is joining the Queen City Podcast Network, a network of locally focused podcasts produced by people in Charlotte, across topics such as current events, comedy, sports, food and business.
Readers respond to Ledger’s press release edition: Last Friday, The Ledger published a newsletter that was based on press releases we had received in the previous two days. Readers sent in their thoughts, saying it was “a little disconcerting” and a “brilliant commentary on modern media.”
Blacklion’s final roar: As Blacklion closes its final store, owner Bob Emory reflects on how he built and grew the 27-year-old Pineville home décor shopping institution. About 80% of vendors are relocating to Southern Lion, which will open this summer at Carolina Place Mall.
Wells Fargo cracks down on hybrid work policy: Wells Fargo told its corporate employees in an internal memo this week that those who don’t adhere to the company’s 3-day-a-week in-the-office requirement could face disciplinary action.
Nonprofit brings STEAM to girls: Project Scientist, a nonprofit founded in Charlotte, builds confidence in girls ages 4 to 18 by providing experiences and educational programs in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) to grow their skills and leadership abilities.
Ways of Life (🔒)
Greg Simmons, the baseball coach at Charlotte Christian School, won 733 games and 16 state championships over 30 years and touched the lives of hundreds of players, some of which went on to play college ball or were drafted by a Major League Baseball team. Simmons died last Saturday from lung cancer at age 57.
What do ‘Groundhog Day’ and Charlotte transit have in common? The same conversations keep happening over and over again. After watching the city’s transit discussions this week, we compiled a list of the recurring questions that just keep poking their head out of the hole, including questions about a transit tax and rebuilding the uptown bus station.
Rebuilding Adam Armour: Last season, Charlotte FC defender Adam Armour discovered he was either born without an ACL, or more likely, had suffered a tear of it previously and never knew it. It’s been over 9 months since his extensive surgery, and Armour hopes to be full speed by the season opener on Feb. 25.
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Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Staff writer: Lindsey Banks; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory; Contributing photographer/videographer: Kevin Young, The 5 and 2 Project