by Lauren Odomirok

MOORESVILLE – Regional leaders realized an ever-expanding population would push them toward heightened collaboration to address strains on the region’s resources.

Between 2000 and 2010, the greater Charlotte area’s population grew from 1.9 million to 2.4 million, an increase of 26.2 percent. But the story doesn’t end there.

The population is expected to increase by 50 percent in 20 years and double within 40 years.

This, and the notion that environmental, economic, educational and quality-of-life concerns often transcend county lines, inspired the CONNECT Our Future Consortium to plan for the years ahead.

The collaboration represents government stakeholders in 14 counties within the Carolinas, including Anson, Cabarrus, Cleveland, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, Rowan, Stanley and Union. Members also come from the business, nonprofit and education communities.

As they join forces, they hope to expand jobs and revitalize work centers, identify future housing needs, improve roads, maintain a high-quality air and water supply, attract young professionals, strengthen the local food industry, create more energy efficiency in existing neighborhoods and public buildings, reduce black carbon emissions from heavy-duty diesel equipment and assess public health disparities based on race, gender and income levels across the region.

“We’re not trying to plan for today. We’re trying to anticipate the growth for the next 20 or 30 years,” said Sushil Nepal, project manager for CONNECT Our Future. “We’re building on people’s aspirations.”

Centralina Council of Governments accepted a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in November 2011 and gathered $3 million in public and private funds on behalf of the consortium to meet regional goals while trying to maintain the feel of each individual community.

Still in its planning stages, CCOG is collecting input from residents in each county through a series of 30 open houses through February. These informal gatherings give the consortium a chance to hear how residents envision sustainable and well-managed growth for the region.

Mooresville hosted a forum Jan. 15 at the Charles Mack Citizen Center. In attendance were Commissioner Bobby Compton, Mooresville’s elective representative to the consortium, and Transportation Planner Neil Burke, its staff representative.

“When you’re crossing a state line, there’s always issues, but we’re all on the same page with wanting to interconnect this 14-county region to grow and expand our economy,” Compton said. “I heard one of my colleagues say, ‘We all drive on the same highways, and we all drink the same water,’ meaning in our case the Catawba River out here which flows into South Carolina.”

Three water basins serve the 14 counties, but water needs will exceed supply in some areas by 2050, according to the consortium’s data. Moreover, between 1996 and 2006, more than 343,100 acres of the area’s farmland and open space were developed.

Transportation concerns, including the Interstate 77 expansion, are another place the consortium will focus its attention.

“We want to take a look at long-range transportation plans and transcribe that into data that can be used regionally for a road framework for the Charlotte region,” Burke said. “We’re in a climate right now where federal and state funding is limited, and the more regional collaboration we can provide, the better.”

Davidson’s Town Manager Leamon Brice agrees, noting he is excited that elected officials from various towns are working together.

“I think planning is critical,” he said. “A lot of us just do planning the way we’ve done it for the last 50 years, and we haven’t learned that there are better ways. I hope through this that some of us who aren’t as aware as others pick up on those differences.”

Pat Riley, president of Allen Tate Realtors, said workers of the 21st century want to live in a quality region near their place of work, and CONNECT is a step toward achieving that outcome.

CCOG believes this regional framework will ensure resources are used effectively before the next 2 million people move to town.