Editor’s Note (December 2019): A Way Forward

The Charlotte leaders who connect communities and overcome rocky waters

THE CATAWBA LANDS CONSERVANCY employees who guided me on a kayak trip down the South Fork River Blueway had never seen the water so low.

After a rainless September, the South Fork, a tributary of the Catawba River that flows west of Charlotte, was especially rocky. For three hours on a Saturday morning in early October, I zig-zagged down the river, managing at times to avoid boulders and glide along with the small group of kayakers as I admired a historic mill and a flock of geese. But more often, I was wedged between rocks, so many I eventually lost count. I scooted and wiggled and jabbed my paddle into the mud to push off the bottom.

Compared to the flatwater at the U.S. National Whitewater Center’s kayak launch point, the blueway is a challenge. It’s also more peaceful.

Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC) is a nonprofit that preserves nearly 17,000 acres in the Southern Piedmont region. The land trust has acquired land since the mid-1990s with one goal: conserve nature in the greater Charlotte area and ensure it’s available for the public to enjoy for—well, forever. CLC also manages the Carolina Thread Trail, a growing network of greenways, trails, and blueways (like the South Fork) in 15 counties.

Like my trip down the South Fork, though, connecting these patches of nature is a puzzle. CLC buys most of its land from private owners, so when they won’t sell, trails dead-end and projects stall.

When I interviewed UNC Charlotte Chan­cellor Philip Dubois for this month’s Charlotteans of the Year feature (page 38), he reminded me of a time when that could have happened with the Blue Line Extension of the light rail. If UNCC hadn’t allowed a stop on campus, the extension might never have happened. Traffic north of uptown is bad now, but imagine it without the light rail.

Charlotte once again faces a decision on whether the city should expand public transit. As construction continues on the Gold Line streetcar, the City Council considers a Silver Line that would stretch from Belmont to Matthews, triple the distance of the 19.3-mile Blue Line. Then, in October, news broke of a potential high-speed train that could take us from Charlotte to Atlanta in two hours. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution questioned the unfunded project: “Beneficial or boondoggle?”

We won’t know for months or years if these projects will be approved and completed, or whether rocks will jam the city’s forward motion.

In the five years since our first Charlotteans of the Year issue, we’ve profiled more than 55 individuals and institutions—from North Carolina Teacher of the Year James Ford in 2014 to Park Road Books’ shop dog, Yola, this year.

The 2019 honorees—including Yola, veteran Charlotte Observer reporters who accepted early retirement offers in February, Birdsong Brewing, and Robert Dawkins—were selected because they’ve done more than just change the city this year.

They’ve kept paddling even as the city changes around them.

Categories: The Buzz