Thursday, August 30, 2007

Charlotte better for tourists than Nashville?

Charlotte a better tourist destination than Nashville?

A recent national ranking that named Charlotte the 26th most-visited city in the nation, ahead of Nashville, was part of the buzz this afternoon at the general meeting of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality & Tourism Alliance.

That’s the folks who run local hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions, and those who do business with them.

Some are surprised to hear that news, given Nashville’s national draw as the home of country music.

The hospitality and tourism industry generated $3 billion in economic impact in Mecklenburg last year and aims to increase that total to $4 billion by 2010, said the group’s leader, Mohammad Jenatian.

Among the ways they’re aiming to do that:

--Bringing minor-league baseball to uptown Charlotte with a complicated land swap. The deal as planned should also result in the redevelopment of Second Ward, currently the government sector of uptown, and a new park in Third Ward near Bank of America Stadium. Charlotte Center City Partners honcho Michael Smith told the group land should start changing hands by Sept. 30, another swap is planned by Oct. 15 and the Mecklenburg County Commissioners should vote on the deal Oct. 16.

--Participating in the campaign opposing the repeal of the county’s 1/2-cent sales tax that goes toward mass transit. If the county’s bus and light rail system are cut back as a result of repealing the tax, many hospitality workers might have trouble getting to work in early mornings or late nights, Jenatian said. (An anti-tax petition got a measure to repeal the tax onto the Nov. 6 election ballot).

--Getting more people to go rafting at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. As recently reported in the Observer, visitor traffic is ahead of projections, but not enough of the visitors are actually going rafting, center director Jeff Wise said. "A lot of people are intimidated by the activities out there," he said. So the new focus is getting the message out that the whitewater isn’t just for Olympic-caliber athletes – it’s for beginners too. The center is also reaching out to meeting planners to hold corporate retreats there.

--And finally, the much-hyped NASCAR Hall of Fame, scheduled to open in uptown Charlotte by 2010. Tim Newman, who heads the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, told the crowd the hall’s design is done, schematics for the museum exhibits and public art on the outdoor plaza will take another six months or so, and it’s on schedule – so far. After discovering the ground it’s on at Stonewall and Brevard streets is less rocky and softer than anticipated, the city recently approved adding a basement to the building for storage and exibit space, bringing the price tag from $154.5 million to $157 million.

What else could we do to make Charlotte more appealing as a tourist destination?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

New guide to the Charlotte region coming soon!

It's time to talk about the next Living Here magazine!

The Observer will publish its 11th annual guide to the Charlotte region at the end of September (edited by yours truly).

It will have 184 pages of information on food, neighborhoods, schools, sports, arts, nightlife, business and everything else you need to know to have fun around here. (For those keeping track, that's up from 160 pages of info in the last edition).

It’s especially helpful for newcomers, but the information is aimed at being useful to everyone. All the content from the 2006-07 Living Here is still available at this link: Click here.

Look for the magazine in most home-delivered papers on Sept. 30, and in racks around Mecklenburg and Union counties. Also watch for the debut of the new content on on that date, and for special newcomer reports on Observer news partner WCNC during that week. If you’d like to order extra copies in advance, click here for a link to the order form.

All year long, I visit newcomer groups, bring them copies of the magazine and try to help answer their questions about the community. If you know of a group I should stop by, please get in touch.

Monday, August 27, 2007

'Charlotte's boring': Outdated reputation?

How can Charlotte improve its reputation for fun?

Twice within the past week, I heard stories of people who’d visited Charlotte – one for a business meeting, the other for a Panthers game – and weren’t even planning to try to go out to have fun afterward. Charlotte is boring, conservative, a bank town, both people said. What could I possibly be missing?

That reputation may have been fair a couple of decades ago, but I’d argue it isn’t today. This past weekend offered opportunities including Friday’s Panthers game and all the revelry in uptown streets both before and afterward; live music in NoDa, where a band called "Los Loose Lugnuts" played old-time country tunes in the wine bar La Dolce Vita; the rousing closing performances of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at Actors’ Theatre; and a film festival celebrating the career of pioneering filmmaker Charles Burnett, with Burnett himself in attendance at each screening. And yes, I sampled all of those activities myself this weekend. I didn’t have time for a minute of boredom.

If these events hadn’t presented themselves to me, I’m certain I would have found dozens more without looking very hard.

So, how do those of us who consider Charlotte a pretty fun place to live get the word out to others who have an outdated image of this place?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Care about Charlotte? Learn about John Belk

Many people reading this may know of John Belk only because they’ve shopped in one of the department stores that bear his father’s name. But anyone who cares at all about Charlotte should know a lot more than that about the imprint this imposing, colorful, gregarious man left on this community.

Just before Belk’s memorial service this afternoon, I heard someone question whether Charlotte truly has a "culture" of its own, or whether we’ve become so overrun by transplants that we are a hodgepodge of other cultures and influences.

I’d argue that John Belk is one of the many things that make Charlotte’s culture unique.

As mayor from 1969 to 1977, he oversaw a period of sweeping change, including shifting racial dynamics, airport expansion and construction of the city’s first convention center. Afterward, he remained a vital part of the local business and philanthropic community.

You’ve likely driven on the John Belk Freeway, attended a show at the Belk theater of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center or perhaps seen one of the buildings that bears his name at Davidson, UNC-Charlotte or other schools.

We remain the corporate headquarters of the retailer he expanded into the largest privately held department store company in the United States, and we benefit from being its employment center and from the lively retail competition that its presence brings. (There’d be no Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus at SouthPark without the flagship Belk store that came first). Click here to read more about his legacy.

My favorite part of Belk’s role in our history is his colorful use of language – see my colleague Jim Morrill’s blog for some examples of classic "Belkisms." I experienced several of them myself when I covered retail for the Observer from September 2001, through Belk’s retirement from the company’s chairmanship, and until I began this newcomers job last year.

At his retirement in 2004, he told me: "While I can still chew gum and talk, I want to get out of the way."

When asked how he plans to spend his time in retirement, he replied: "I haven’t thought about it. But there’s always more to do than I could handle."

Then he added: "The world’s going on, and it’s a good thing it does."

When I spotted him a few months later at a public function and asked how retirement was going, his answer: "Life is like a roll of toilet paper. It goes a lot faster at the end."

I enjoyed a personal connection with him, too: My late great-grandfather, Edward Jones Erwin, taught Shakespeare, Tennyson and Browning at Davidson College, and Belk was one of his students. Belk told me he had fond memories of the classes. When I had the chance to chat with retired Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl after today’s memorial service and shared the connection, McColl quipped: "I’m surprised John ever took an English class."

It is fitting that the memorial service for a man who approached his life with such humor was filled with laughter. I’ll conclude with one more joke from John Belk, which his friend Bishop George Battle shared during his eulogy:

"What do you say to a man who has two black eyes?
Nothing – he’s already been told twice."

Best spots for taking out-of-town visitors?

This weekend, I had the chance to put some of my own advice to the test when I hosted two friends from out of town. One of the most frequent questions I get from newcomers is where they should take out-of-town visitors. Here's my itinerary - please feel free to critique it. I might get some more ideas for next time!

Thursday evening: Friends arrive hungry, but with no particular preference for dinner. I decided to take them to Dish, 1220 Thomas Ave., for an "only in Charlotte" dining experience. Southern food but with a very updated vibe - and lots of selections for my vegetarian friend. Everyone came away happy, but I did notice it was so loud we had trouble hearing each other at times.

Friday: After a lazy morning, we headed out to Ballantyne Village (at Johnston Road and Ballantyne Commons Parkway) for lunch at Village Bistro. Everyone enjoyed the food there, and we topped it off with a visit to the center's new Kilwin's Chocolates and Ice Cream Shoppe for dessert. Then we headed to Ballantyne Resort across the street for some massages and a facial in the spa. Afterward, we decided that a couple of hours in air conditioning sounded good, so we headed back to the Ballantyne Village Theatre to catch an indie film ("Becoming Jane," which we generally gave a thumbs-up to). From there, we stuck around for dinner at Table, where we had a unique dinner with attentive service.

Saturday: We headed to the U.S. National Whitewater Center on Charlotte's westside. My friends weren't interested in whitewater rafting, but they enjoyed seeing the center, which was extremely busy with rafters and kayakers. We ate lunch in the restaurant, The Eddy, and enjoyed the food despite slow service. We took a walk around the whitewater course - one circuit was all we could handle in the heat. Afterward, we considered a tour of Lowe's Motor Speedway (just $5, every hour from 9:30 to 3:30 most days), but both friends had seen it before. So we headed instead to Birkdale Village at Interstate 77's exit 25 in Huntersville for some shopping, another movie (more air conditioning! - "No Reservations," which left us hungry) and dinner at Brixx. We capped off the evening with a trip to the Charlotte Knights baseball game, where we enjoyed the post-game fireworks. Sunday was their heading-back-out day.

I could've brought them to many other attractions, but the heat held us back from most of the area's outdoor offerings. Where else would you suggest we should have gone?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Favorite road trips from Charlotte

One of the reasons so many people are moving to Charlotte, newcomers tell me, is they like being close to both mountains and the beach.

I experienced this advantage for myself last week when I visited Isle of Palms, a beach just outside of Charleston about a 3.5-hour drive from Charlotte. (This helps explain my long gap in postings – sorry about that). I had a great time there with family, even after sharks provoked a scare by biting two swimmers within a few hours, prompting a temporary beach closure.

If you haven’t been yet, you should add this to your list of road trips. (I promise, shark bites are extremely rare). So long as you dodge hurricane warnings, this destination will only get better as the summer days wind down (I had a great time there once in November). When you go, here are some recommended stops:

--Windjammers. A bar you get to right after you cross onto the Isle of Palms, it always has interesting live music and a generally friendly crowd.

--The Boat House and the Sea Biscuit. Two popular restaurants on the island; Boat House is a dinner stop and Sea Biscuit is great for breakfast. Both easy to find once you’re on the island.

--Shem Creek. This inlet between Sullivan’s Island and Charleston is home to many pleasant restaurants. I particularly enjoyed R.B.’s.

--And, of course, you have to go into Charleston for shopping and sightseeing. The kids will enjoy a visit to the S.C. Aquarium; I enjoyed roaming the historic Market, where I purchased pottery directly from the potter who made it.

The Isle of Palms Web site is And click here for more information on Charleston and other popular coastal destinations from the Observer’s Road Trips guide.

What’s your favorite road trip from Charlotte? Post here or e-mail me.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Your vote: Favorite local discovery?

What’s your favorite local discovery since moving here?

I asked that question to a group of 16 newcomers who visited the newsroom recently for a newcomer forum. I hold these discussion groups periodically; if you’re a transplant who’s lived here less than two years and you’re interested in participating in a future group, e-mail me and I’ll keep your name on the list.

I was surprised at the popularity of one of the answers: Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. I’ve been aware of this beautiful spot in Belmont, just over the Gaston/Mecklenburg county line, since it rose to prominence in the late 1990s. But, up until now I haven’t given it a lot of love in my newcomer suggestions.

I visited this week to film my newcomer report with Bobby Sisk of WCNC. You can see it Monday on the 5 a.m. or 11 a.m. newscasts, and see my column about it in this Monday’s paper (and links to both will be at, of course). I agreed with the newcomers: It’s a must-see.

For other recent reports, I’ve visited local attractions including the Carolina Raptor Center, Historic Brattonsville, Carolinas Aviation Museum, Reed Gold Mine and the U.S. National Whitewater Center. I’d also include those on the list of spots newcomers should check out.

Now I’d like to hear your suggestions – please post here or e-mail me.