Big Ideas

Our August issue contained lots of what we called Big Ideas. But we're not through yet. Submit your own big idea for how to make Charlotte a better, more interesting city, and we'll post the good ones. Have an opinion about any of the ideas on this page? Comment below. Let's keep the conversation going!


Public Pianos

An idea we can steal
Let's be honest: Charlotte's not the most musical of cities. But it could be if we copied London's sweet idea of installing thirty pianos throughout the city. Sing London, a nonprofit dedicated to connecting people through music, installed the pianos throughout high-traffic areas, like Leicester Square and Portobello Market, during June and July. Anyone and everyone was invited—and encouraged—to play whenever the musical urge struck. And while we know Charlotte's not a walking city, we still think a piano or two placed in Charlotte's pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods like uptown, SouthPark, and Ballantyne Village just might do the trick. —Written by Whitney Bossie  

Have a Vision

Todd Mansfield, CEO, Crosland Inc.
Have the Urban Land Institute (for which Mansfield just finished a two-year term as national chairman) put on a "Reality Check" like the one recently done in the Triangle area. A few hundred community leaders would participate in the process to come up with a vision for the region's future.  

Re-think Portable School Buildings

Tom Low of urban planning company Duany Plater-Zyrbek & Co.
Create a nonprofit organization through which people could volunteer to help build learning cottages—similar to Habitat for Humanity. The cottages could be constructed in a few days for a fraction of the cost of conventional school buildings.

A Trauma Collar You Can See Through

Alan Donaldson and Cassmer Ward
Sometimes it's clear: a genius of an idea just needs someone to run with it. That's the case with Clear Collar, a product dreamed up by Alan Donaldson of Winston-Salem and being developed by his son-in-law Cassmer Ward of Charlotte. Donaldson, an emergency room nurse, regularly saw injured people arrive at the hospital wearing opaque neck collars placed on them by EMTs. Nurses and doctors must move those collars to check for trauma underneath, increasing the risk of neck injury. Donaldson thought, why not make the collar clear and eliminate that risk? He made a prototype out of household plastics and got a patent. But nothing came of it until Ward jumped on it as part of his entrepreneurship project in the MBA program at Queens University of Charlotte. "Here's your chance for free consulting," Ward told his father-in-law. After graduation, Ward quit his job with a structural engineering firm to develop Clear Collar full time. The fledgling company has lined up manufacturing and distribution and now needs $1.2 million from investors. First big investor to write a check: an emergency room doctor. —written by Miriam Durkin  

Operate Businesses Off the Grid

Carlos Espin
Stack shipping containers in the grassy area beside the Area 15 warehouse (an artists' collective near NoDa) and use them to house a coffee shop and other businesses that would operate entirely off the electrical grid, using alternative energy sources such as solar panels. Carlos Espin, who manages Area 15, is working with Rich Deming (link to his profile) on the project. 

Get People to Dine Out Together

Larken Egleston promotes, markets, and hosts events and also has a passion for food. Last year, the Johnson & Wales grad started the Charlotte Culinary Club, which holds dinner events at restaurants around the city. And he recently joined the management team of Amelie's French Bakery. Here's his big idea: "We have more than 1,200 members in the Charlotte Culinary Club. It's my attempt to not only get people thinking about their food choices—supporting local restaurants, markets, and farmers—but also to show them that just because we're in a poor economy doesn't mean you can't go out and have a great meal." —Written by Jarvis Holliday  

A Collaborative Theater Space

Donna Scott, Independent Theater Producer
One of the hardest things independent producers face is finding a space where we can do shows. [Theatre Charlotte provided space for The Fairy Tale Chronicles.]  If we do have an idea, it's how can you fit it around somebody else's schedule. I saw a great space in Washington, D.C., called the Warehouse Theater. The middle of the space was a café where you could get coffee, snacks, sandwiches, and wine and beer. There were two black box theater spaces on opposite wings of it. One was 120 seats, and the other was forty-five. It was local theater companies, independent producers producing. I kept thinking, ‘Wow.' That would be great if there was a space we could somehow share.

Spread out Affordable Housing

Kathy Izard, Founder, Urban Ministry Center's Homeless to Homes
We have to have units available all over Charlotte so people can live near employment opportunities and to achieve this, all districts need to work together to create a citywide locational housing policy.

Look Inward for Creativity

Manoj Kesavan, Associate, Adams & Associates and Founder of
Let's face it: even though we like to pretend (and sometimes believe) otherwise, Charlotte is still a provincial town on the cultural map, far away from the spotlight. However, the world has changed: everyone, almost anywhere in the world, is more connected to everyone else. Moreover, the traditional media and the associated power structures that defined the cultural centers have eroded in recent years—things have opened up. As the history of art shows, great new ideas and movements rarely develop in the power centers. The relative privacy of being away from the spotlight often spurs the growth of original ideas into fresh new movements, which eventually command attention from everyone elsewhere.

After a decade of a self-conscious adolescence of fast growth, Charlotte needs to stop looking outside for ideas and direction and draw inspiration from the often-unfashionable realities around us. We need to value what we have here, and encourage, challenge, and critique each other. We also need to hold on to the faith that something good can come out of Nazareth, as it could from New York.

Our Lady of Incessant Tweets will take care of the rest. 

Matching Needy Tenants with Affordable Housing

Van Gottel, Founder of
A middle-of-the-night epiphany spurred frustrated social worker Van Gottel to launch, a nonprofit Web site that matches people with affordable rental housing. Though other rental-search Web sites exist, Gottel's model is so innovative that he now has contracts for its use with government housing agencies in twenty-seven states and major cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. While most sites are run to benefit landlords, Gottel's site puts the tenants' needs first, says marketing director Beth Leysieffer. Prospective tenants can search by price, location, proximity to hospitals or public transportation, availability of subsidies, wheelchair access, or even by whether a criminal background check is required. also offers a call center whose staffers take a personal interest in resolving the tenant's housing needs. Landlords post their property for free. And true to Gottel's sense of mission, many of's fifty-plus employees are former homeless people. "We believe that we've all been given a chance in life, and we give chances here," Gottel says. "I asked myself why was I here every day, until the middle of that night when the idea for Socialserve came to me." —Written by Miriam Durking  

Re-think Sustainability

Rich Deming, Urban Frontiersman
"If everyone bought their fuel and their food from someone who made it themselves within a couple hundred miles, and no one felt the need to build monuments to themselves in the form of McMansions, we wouldn't have an environmental crisis," Deming says. Deming's community garden at Friendship Trays epitomizes his philosophy. The plot uses captured roof water and provides culinary students with a working food lab. Friendship Trays is a community organization that prepares and delivers meals to the elderly and infirm. So its clients also get the freshest and most healthful food possible. —Written by Tamela Rich

Celebrate Those Who Produce Art

Mark Peres, Associate Professor at Johnson and Wales and Founder of
The broader mission of has been to speak to where the region is and where it is going, appreciating that Charlotte may not fully realize its own creative strengths and talents. We're consumers of art and culture; we haven't matured yet to become producers of it. So we seek to be incubators of citizens who are producing, as opposed to simply consuming.  

Voluntary Subscriptions for Original Web Content

David Boraks, Founder of
I expect at some point, all of us who publish free news Web sites will have to start charging for content. That's why I've started the voluntary subscription payments—the cost of gathering news is still the same, so I'm trying to instill that in my readers. I think in ten years instead of seeing a big metro daily paper covering all the surrounding cities and suburbs, there will be a market for sites like mine who approach it from a very local level.

Create an Events Calendar for the African-American Community

Glenn Burkins, Founder of
One of the things I want to be able to do on Qcitymetro is have the definitive events calendar for African Americans, whether you're looking for church events, government events, the arts, or entertainment. It would be just the things that African Americans tend to be interested in, though I'm not trying to paint all African Americans with one broad brush. The events are all out there somewhere, but not all in one place. 

Scrap the City Zoning Code

Mary Newsom, Columnist for The Charlotte Observer
Scrap the entire city zoning code and rewrite it to more directly encourage compact, urban development. The way the zoning code is written now, the default is always to a suburban style of development, which is not appropriate for a city the size of Charlotte.

Establish a Best-Practices Center for Nonprofits

Will Miller, Social Venture Capitalist
Set up a first-class research-and-development operation that would find the absolute best practices for delivering social services being used around the world—whether it be Sweden or Seattle. Then, coordinate with area agencies to use only those proven best practices.

Put Soccer Fields in Underused Public Spaces

Akbar Majeed, Founder of Concrete2Green
In Charlotte, I would want to open about ten to fifteen outdoor facilities. If you look at neighborhoods that are heavily immigrant, you have tennis courts that are just sitting there that no one is using. Those are prime to put this in. We're so conditioned to think soccer: big field, park, twenty-two players. But if you and a few friends can go to a tennis-size court and kick the ball around, that leads to healthier living, people being more active, and helps clean up those areas that are sort of sitting around rotting.  

Bring Back Anderson's

From the editors
For fifty years, Anderson's, on Elizabeth Avenue across from Presbyterian Hospital, served hearty home cooking to folks wearing blue collars, white collars, and scrubs. On Friday mornings, Charlotte's power brokers gathered for pancakes and coffee. Then, in November 2006, Anderson's closed. A few months later, a Starbucks opened there, the perfect symbol of Charlotte's yearning to replace its humble past with shiny new brands that people from other places recognize. Around the same time, the economy started to go in the tank. By October, Wachovia had imploded and Charlotte would never be the same. Now the space is vacant again. We don't need a financial bailout or a new energy-based economy; we need pancakes from Anderson's. Bring back Anderson's, and we bring back the good times.  


From the editors
Within a few blocks of where Park and Woodlawn roads intersect are one of the city's best pizza joints, a popular bowling alley, great shops, top restaurants, and some of the hottest nightlife south of uptown. The only problem is, no one ever knows what to call this area. "Around Park Road Shopping Center" and "close to the Chick-fil-A on Woodlawn" just aren't cutting it. So, henceforth, we're designating it "ParkWood." We hope it catches on—and that we see you next weekend in ParkWood. 

How CMS Can Learn from KIPP

Clearly, the KIPP approach works, and it addresses what Superintendent Peter Gorman has long acknowledged as the district's greatest challenge: the so-called "achievement gap" between the lowest-performing students and their classmates at the top. And, according to figures from KIPP: Charlotte and CMS, it doesn't cost that much more to educate a child at KIPP ($9,000 vs. $8,794 per year). So let's do this:

Gorman should designate one elementary, one middle, and one high school as KIPP-style magnet schools. Partner with Teach for America and KIPP: Charlotte to recruit and train teachers (there are already more than 200 TFA alums teaching in CMS). Use the existing transfer bonus system (educators get bonuses to move into less-desirable schools) to compensate teachers at the new schools. Set up a three-year trial period. Establish that a student can only attend one of the new magnets during his or her time in CMS. Then study the results. What have we got to lose? Other than our kids' futures, we mean.

Categories: Feature, The Buzz