by Jeff Taylor
Pam Syfert is retiring next year after 11 years as Charlotte’s city manager. During her tenure Syfert used the considerable power afforded her in the city manager system to drive Charlotte city government toward its “world class” aspirations.
Toward that end Syfert was instrumental in securing two projects that will forever mark Charlotte: The $500 million South Blvd. light rail line and the $265 million Uptown arena. Mayor Pat McCrory, with whom Syfert forged a very effective inside/outside, good cop/bad cop relationship, may forever be the public face of these monuments to civic activism — light rail especially — but it was Syfert who did the heavy lifting behind the scenes and at least made the numbers seem plausible to the city council.
In many ways Syfert’s run as the top executive in city government can be split into two halves, the time leading up to the June 2001 referendum on a new Uptown arena and arts facilities and the past five years, which Syfert largely spent undoing the public’s overwhelming rejection of that package. The 2001 vote also coincided with a rare economic downturn for the Queen City, which in turn drove the city in the unfamiliar territory of offering economic incentives to companies and developers.
In fact, for those keeping score, the publicly subsidized $154 million NASCAR Hall of Fame and the $160 million Wachovia Arts Tower can be added to Syfert’s drive to erase the voters rejection of the bond measure from Charlotte’s history books. It is, now, as if the vote never happened.
But wait, there’s more. Syfert was also a big part of Charlotte spending $16 million up front and $2.5 million a year for 20 years to make the $143 million Westin hotel happen. And let’s not forget the $40 million trolley which, at one time, served the Westin. So by any calculation, Pam Syfert spent about $1 billion building stuff that was not roads in Charlotte.
Yet, Syfert’s lasting legacy goes far behind bricks and mortar. One, her managment style viewed public input as a nuisance. Accordingly, city policies were drafted behind closed doors and presented as “done deals” to the public at-large. And two, the city of Charlotte went on a spending frenzy.
At a time when city revenues were growing by six to eight percent a year, Syfert struggled to keep city spending from growing at an 10 annual clip. There is little doubt that Charlotte’s next city manager will have to find ways to correct that path, or Syfert’s legacy will be financial hard times for the Queen City.