Saturday, October 03, 2009

Charlotte Bust

Putting aside my Schadenfreude, the rise and fall of Charlotte is fascinating. Much of my Erie clan moved to this region during the great Rust Belt exodus. I'm familiar with the spectacular growth there. My hypothesis is that this city benefited from a greenfield-like development and that the legacy costs of the boom would eventually catch up with it. Some indication that I'm correct:

I moved to Charlotte right in the middle of its Golden Age. Hugh McColl and Ed Crutchfield two local good old boys had built not one but 2 international banking empires in the same town and it looked like there was no stopping them from becoming even bigger. Charlotte was calling itself the 2nd largest financial center in the US, second only to New York City. Most of the locals were reaping the benefits of the large dividends from Nations Bank and First Union. If you didn't work for one of the 2 banks you owned a good chunk of the stock.

They both endorsed a brand new, young and charismatic mayor named Pat McCory and the 3 together got funding for ever thing Charlotte needed to be a great city. We were getting mass transit, the downtown was bringing back people after dark to a football stadium, new arena, dining and entertainment venues. The Arts & Science Council and United Way were receiving full funding from everyone. The local joke was that the official bird of Charlotte was the Building Crane. They were sighted all over town, in flocks. ...

... Ken Thompson wasn't replaced with an insider and now that Ken Lewis is leaving the BofA board is also looking for an outsider. Charlotte has always had a fear of outsiders. "You aren't a native Charlottean are you?" was the first question a new neighbor was always asked. The mayor ran an ill-fated campaign for Governor so the last of the Charlotte Trinity is gone. Charlotte is a ship without a captain.

The popular theory is that local tolerance lends itself to economic growth. I've been the outsider in a lot of American boomtowns. Too much is made of the parochial Rust Belt. I read about brain drain anxiety in Boston and in the Front Range of Colorado. The running joke while I was visiting Youngstown is that returning Rust Belt refugees would be greeted with the epithet of carpetbagger. Charlotte wasn't particularly welcoming to outsiders. You can ask my relatives.

The fuel for Charlotte's growth was the ability of the triumvirate to do just about anything it wanted. There weren't any political legacy costs. This is the China strategy for city building. This is the Texas advantage, a state with seemingly endless frontier spaces. I'm looking for the same political geography developing in the Rust Belt. Detroit might get there. But I've found it in full flower in Youngstown.

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