CHARLOTTE — Mayor Anthony Foxx attended a small business forum Tuesday evening at the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte. Foxx, a panel of LGBT small business owners and about two dozen citizens discussed a wide range of issues including jobs, taxes, the economy, education, infrastructure and LGBT inclusion in city policies and ordinances.
Foxx stressed the importance of small businesses in the Charlotte economy, despite the city’s reputation as a banking center.
“Small businesses account for 90 percent of our jobs in the Charlotte area,” he said. “Charlotte is actually a small business community.”
Foxx said the housing crunch and 2008 economic collapse served as a “double whammy” against small businesses that are often finding it harder to access capital. The answer, he said, is continued local government outreach and support.
“I try as mayor to reach out to broad cross-sections of our city,” the mayor related, “and to ask questions, ‘How do you think things are going?’, ‘How should we be moving the community forward?’ and ‘What is it specifically you think I can do to help?'”
The small business panel included seven Charlotteans ranging from financial planners and attorneys to real estate developers and physicians. Each raised individual points of concern.
Kevin Levine of Argos Real Estate Advisors said he hoped the possibility of an additional tax on real estate transactions would not come to Charlotte.
On the amendment
During his small business forum, qnotes asked Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx about his views on the anti-LGBT constitutional amendment approved for a May 2012 ballot by state lawmakers earlier this month.
“My feeling about what is going on up in Raleigh is that our General Assembly needs to focus on job creation and not on individual social agendas,” Foxx said.
Mecklenburg County Commission Chairman Jennifer Roberts was one several municipal leaders across the state who signed onto a statement opposing the amendment prior to its approval by the legislature. Neither Foxx nor the Charlotte City Council or any of its individual members issued similar remarks at the time.
Foxx said taxes should be seen as a “means” to build future growth and expansion.
“If you ask me what I’ll pay for, I’ll pay for education and infrastructure,” Foxx said.
The mayor said future increases in fuel prices could hinder Charlotte’s growth unless the city took action now to support public transit. He cited airport expansion, light-rail projects and high-speed rail between Charlotte and Raleigh.
“We need a 21st century infrastructure,” he said. “Prices will go up and unless we have choices like transit we will be left behind. We need to be making smart choices now that are cheaper and better.”
Levine and other panelists also pushed the mayor on issues of LGBT inclusion.
“I’m very thankful for a mayor that will come and speak at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center; diversity is very important for Charlotte,” Levine said. “But I’m moving away from tolerance and more toward acceptance. I would hope the city would move toward acceptance as well. There are a lot of things Charlotte is doing well and a lot of things Charlotte needs to do better.”
Local attorney Connie Vetter was among the most outspoken. Among early leaders in the local Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), Vetter often went toe-to-toe with city leaders and soon-to-retire Charlotte Attorney Mac McCarley over debates on public employment protections and domestic partner benefits in the early 2000s.
“What is the hold up on domestic partnerships,” she asked. “A lot of us have been working on this for a long time and there’s been a lot of bouncing back and forth…It’s really about political will. It’s always been about political will. Leaders have to lead and that’s what we’d like you to do.”
Foxx, who has made historic firsts in his efforts to reach out to the city’s LGBT community, said Charlotte was still evolving and growing.
“As we grow and become more diverse and have more voices, we have to continue being vigilant around issues important to the community,” he said.
Family physician Rhett Brown also encouraged the city to take action. He related the story of a friend who had grown up in Charlotte and moved back to work as an obstetrician and gynecologist. The friend was later fired by a private firm due to his sexual orientation.
“By adopting its own inclusive policies, the city could be a model for other businesses to let them know that to keep good talent and to attract good talent that this is important,” Brown said.
Foxx pointed out that city ordinances already include protections on the basis of sexual orientation, a claim later refuted by this newspaper during the forum’s audience Q&A. While such protections exist, they do so only in the city’s human relations policies not in the city’s code of ordinances. In editorials, this newspaper has pushed city council to take a public vote on the matter. MeckPAC, too, has taken a similar position.
Foxx said recent changes to employment policies, enacted last year by City Manager Curt Walton, carry the force as if the council had passed the change itself.
Foxx continued to stress inclusion throughout the evening and said he empathized with the concerns.
“I come from a tradition where people have struggled mightily for rights to simply go to work, the right to stay int he same hotels, the right to sit in the same restaurants and the right to vote,” he said. “I know there is a lagging indicator in terms of some of the things people are still feeling, but know the arc of the moral universe is long but it does bend toward justice.”
Foxx also told community members to become more involved in local political affairs and to not be afraid to hold him and city council members accountable.
“I think it is important for this community in particular to galvanize around city boards and commissions and making sure you have a voice at the table,” he said.
Foxx and city council face reelection this year. Tuesday’s LGBT small business forum was one of several planned around the issue. On Wednesday, the mayor will hold a similar roundtable with Emulsion Arts and representatives of local film and video companies.
Foxx has placed job creation high on his campaign’s list of priorities as the city and state continue to face difficulties caused by the nation’s economic collapse in 2008. Foxx has stressed positive, local job growth. According to the Charlotte Chamber, more than 14,000 new jobs in the city have been announced since Foxx took office in December 2009. Yet, Mecklenburg County’s unemployment rate remains high. State officials placed it at 11.1 percent in July, higher than both the state and national averages. North Carolina’s July unemployment rate was 10.1 percent. Nationally, the rate was 9.1 percent.
Live-tweets from the forum
Staff was on-hand at the event on Tuesday evening and provided updates live through Twitter. Check out some of that conversation below.