Regional planners ask: What will we look like in 2050?

If you stumbled into the Charlotte Convention Center’s main ballroom Tuesday morning, you might well have wondered why all those grown-ups were playing with LEGO blocks and yarn.

Answer: They were deciding what Charlotte and the counties surrounding it will look like in the year 2050.

An estimated 400 people from around the 14-county region, including mayors, business leaders and residents, gathered for an ambitious exercise aimed at crafting a regional plan for guiding growth and economic development over the first half of the century.

With an estimated 1.7 million new people and jobs expected in the region over the next 35 years, organizers said the region could find itself overwhelmed by traffic, pollution, poverty and suburban sprawl unless the region’s leaders develop a comprehensive growth plan.

“This is a very practical, pragmatic approach to say, what are those areas that we should be agreeing upon, that we need to agree on, and begin to reach agreement on those areas,” said Jim Prosser, head of the Centralina Council of Governments, a regional planning group.

The exercise, called RealityCheck2050, is part of a regional planning project powered by a federal grant of nearly $5 million being coordinated by Centralina and the Catawba Regional Council of Governments in Rock Hill.

Tuesday morning, groups of people stood around tables covered with maps of the region and used LEGO bricks and colored yarn to plot where the jobs, housing, transportation corridors and green space of the future will go.

Prosser said the goal is to come up with a plan by the end of next year that outlines a “preferred growth scenario.”

It will include “very practical strategies,” Prosser added. “How do we grow more vibrant downtowns? How do we make sure we have housing and the type of housing where we need it?”

The effort at regional cooperation comes amid high-profile instances of regional conflict. The exercise was held on the same day an N.C. House committee passed a controversial bill that would give control of city-run Charlotte Douglas International Airport to a regional authority.

City officials, stung by the fact that government officials in surrounding counties voiced support for the bill, have questioned whether they should reconsider their efforts at regional cooperation.

Charlotte City Council member David Howard, who participated in the planning exercise, stepped out to get phone updates as the bill cleared the committee, its latest step toward passage.

He said he hopes the exercise helps remind officials from surrounding counties that Charlotte is the region’s economic engine.

“If the core’s not strong, everybody else will languish,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

At Belmont Mayor Richard Boyce’s table, one of the group’s first decisions was to run a light rail corridor from Charlotte to Gastonia. He supported the decision but remains concerned that Charlotte’s growth could overwhelm his tiny town. “We don’t simply want to become a bedroom commuting town for Charlotte,” he said.

Organizers will hold workshops in each of the 14 counties in the months ahead, hoping to build support and momentum that will lead local governments to adopt some or all of the plan.

Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols said he’d love to see light rail running from Charlotte to his city someday.

“All of these processes take a long period of time,” Echols said. “The more we can start talking about it now and help to kind of move our area forward in thinking about it and planning for it, the better off we all are.”

By Eric Frazier, Staff Reporter with The Charlotte Observer