The Story of Charlotte, Part 12: Blotting Out the Sun

Led by Hugh McColl and a motivated banking industry, Charlotte becomes the world-class city it’s always wanted to be. Or does it?


Published:

KIM ROSEN

In 2013, Mecklenburg County celebrated its 250th anniversary. In this 12-part series, Charlotte magazine looked back at life in the region through the years. From the town’s beginnings as a rural crossroads, the series traced Charlotte’s growth and highlighted the turning points that led to it becoming a major U.S. city. 

1982—Things are different on the Square these days. Gone are Rex’s Pool Hall and Tanner’s Snack Bar and the Kress dime store and the Independence Building, the 12-story “skyscraper” so celebrated 73 years ago when it opened. Behind the glass and steel of two new skyscrapers, bankers and lawyers and accountants and analysts walk swiftly from parking decks to boardrooms and cubicles, rarely touching the sidewalk. Across Tryon Street, the 130-year-old buildings on Granite Row stand with sagging roofs. Across Trade Street, at the block-long Belk department store, business is slow. The store sells the occasional white shirt or replacement tie to one of those fast-moving businesspeople. 

Behind the glass and steel, the executives of North Carolina National Bank are looking to the future. Bank president Hugh McColl has never been shy or hesitant in NCNB’s battles with in-town rivals First Union and Wachovia, or in its aggressive campaigns to buy up smaller banks. His brash quotes have made headlines for almost a decade, ever since he rose in the ranks to president of the growing bank. Back in the early 1970s, when NCNB announced plans to build a 40-story skyscraper on the northeast corner of the Square, McColl said in a public meeting, “I’ll give you an environmental impact statement. It’s going to blot out the sun!”

The bank’s goal is right there in its title—“National”—but Depression-era regulations on interstate banking keep NCNB from crossing state lines. Still, no regulation will stop CEO Thomas Storrs and his lieutenant McColl from trying. When a small bank goes on the market in Lake City, Florida, NCNB buys it and waits for the courts to decide. NCNB already has an international office in London, closer to the markets there. Yet the bank stays rooted in Charlotte. When employees are hired from London, they’re in for a culture shock. They’re accustomed to city living, and many of them don’t have driver’s licenses. And in Charlotte, there are no decent places to live within walking distance of the bank, and there’s no decent public transit. But instead of looking for a livelier city to move the bank’s headquarters, NCNB sets out to make Charlotte more like a headquarters city.  

A few blocks north and west of the NCNB tower, the once grand Victorian houses sit rotting and crumbling—the ones that are left, anyway. Back in the late 1960s, the city had tagged the area for demolition to make way for an expressway and a senior housing tower. Preservationists, led by the Junior League, stalled the decision for several years. Still, by the mid-1970s, only 13 houses remained in the entire 20-block area. NCNB sees an opportunity. No decent houses in Fourth Ward? The bank will pay to move the remaining Victorian homes from other parts of the city there. No one wants to live in Fourth Ward? The bank will offer below-rate mortgages to entice people to move. Bad infrastructure? The bank will loan the city $11 million for the redevelopment. 

And so now, in the early 1980s, 1,400 people live in Fourth Ward—many of them professors and architects and NCNB executives.  Among those who have found a home in Fourth Ward is an architect named Harvey Gantt. Gantt is used to being a pioneer. In 1963, he became the first black student at Clemson University. In 1983, after several terms on the City Council, he becomes the city’s first black mayor, narrowly beating south Charlotte Republican Ed Peacock Jr. Although racial politics seeped into the campaign at times, Gantt’s views on development seemed more controversial. Charlotte, Gantt says, should slow down a little bit. The city should plan its growth. Rather than a new road for every suburban developer, the city should focus on rebuilding the urban areas it has started to abandon. “It’s important,” Gantt says in his 1985 re-election campaign, “to be hard-headed and not allow ourselves to be overrun with development that will kill off what makes us special.” 

Challenger Dave Berryhill calls Gantt a “dreamer” in his 1985 campaign. “We can talk about dreams, visions, and great cities,” Berryhill, a real estate developer, says. “But we’ve been talking about that for more years than most of us want to admit.” Still, Charlotte in the mid-1980s is in a dreaming mood. There’s talk of a new coliseum and an NBA franchise. The school busing controversy of the 1970s has become a source of pride in the city in the 1980s—so much so, that when President Ronald Reagan stops by SouthPark Mall during his re-election campaign in 1984 and makes a comment about the “failed” experiment of forced busing, the audience responds with awkward silence. And this is Reagan country. 

Despite the growth in Fourth Ward, many people ask why anyone would want to live uptown.  And it is true, fewer and fewer people are making the trip now as the shopping malls have popped up farther and farther away from the center of town—SouthPark and Carolina Place in the far-flung southern suburbs, where acres and acres of green fields become subdivisions. The city’s population increases by more than 80,000 in the 1980s, and many of the newcomers will end up on the south and east sides, where what were once country roads are feeling the strain of rush hour traffic. 

Roads, roads, roads. That’s Sue Myrick’s rallying cry when she runs for mayor in 1987. And it resonates in south Charlotte, where new commuters seem to arrive daily. Moving trucks are wearing out the asphalt along N.C. Highway 51 and Providence Road. Transferred workers arrive each day, heading to jobs with the banks and insurance companies and technology companies in new suburban office parks. Many of these newcomers have little love for uptown and little connection with Charlotte’s history. Their concern is for a quick commute, a good salary, and a reasonably priced home. 

Myrick attracts support from Citizens for Effective Government (CFEG), which calls for less government spending. In debates, Myrick proposes cutting city management positions and shifting millions of dollars from an Independence Boulevard project near uptown to a south Charlotte outerbelt highway. Gantt’s old votes for an uptown coliseum and against an outerbelt highway south of N.C. 51 come back to haunt him.  The outerbelt, Gantt had said, would only bring more sprawl to southeast Charlotte. But the sprawl came anyway. Gantt’s campaign slogan is “Working for the City.” Myrick counters with postcards of rush hour scenes topped with the question, “Had Enough Yet?” The voters side with Myrick, and she edges out Gantt by half a percentage point in the 1987 election. 

But most people aren’t paying attention to mayoral politics. 

***

THEY COME IN tuxedos. They come in long dresses. On November 4, 1988, Charlotte is ready to be a major-league sports town when the Charlotte Hornets play an NBA game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Years earlier, when owner George Shinn flew to New York to pitch his proposal to bring the NBA to Charlotte, then-league commissioner David Stern had nearly laughed. “Honestly, I’m not sure I knew where Charlotte was when he came in,” Stern would say years later. 

But on opening night, those people in tuxedos and dresses show him. More than 23,000 fans sell out the new Charlotte Coliseum near Billy Graham Parkway. Some arrive in limousines. So what if the Hornets lose by 40? The fans still cheer.    

The Hornets are just one of many new entertainment options in the fast-growing city. New restaurants have been springing up, and two theme parks—Carowinds and Heritage USA, run by televangelists Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell—open just south of town. And then, after the feds indict Bakker for defrauding his investors, there’s the circus of his trial in 1989 at the federal courthouse on West Trade Street, where supporters and detractors and mockers gather. Someone dressed in a devil costume shows up. “I’m sick and tired of Jim and Tammy Bakker blaming everything on me,” he tells a radio DJ. 

Charlotte is no longer the “most boring city” that Hugh McColl had found as a bank trainee back in the late 1950s. Not that McColl is in Charlotte all that much these days. He’s busy with a flurry of mergers and acquisitions. After decades of lobbying from NCNB and other banks, a group of Southeastern states has agreed to allow banks from other states to start branches in theirs. So McColl flies from bank to bank in Florida and Texas. “Everywhere my airplane lands, bank stocks go up,” McColl tells reporters in Florida.  Still, the bank’s home is in Charlotte. And when Belk finally closes the doors to its wheezing old department store in 1988, North Carolina National Bank already has plans for a 60-story office tower. Meanwhile, in-town rival First Union is finishing its 42-story tower on College and Third streets. NCNB owns three of the four corners of the Square now. It will buy 200 banks between 1989 and 1992, and in the process, it will gain a new name: NationsBank. 

The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce changes its slogan to “The Sky’s the Limit.” Despite the emerging skyline, though, the sidewalks uptown are still empty on nights and weekends. When the NCAA Final Four comes to town in 1994—a coup for college basketball-crazed North Carolina—the city turns vacant Tryon Street storefronts into temporary nightclubs and restaurants. They call it the “Street of Champions.” Even the usually boosterish Observer asks in a headline, “Who are we trying to fool? … Using the Street of Champions logic, we should put cardboard cutouts of cops on street corners to deter crime (and) pull the plug on the ailing Charlotte Symphony and fill the concert hall by playing classical favorites with the CD player turned up really loud.”  

Charlotte, the newspaper says, values image over substance. The city is attracting national conventions and has won a National Football League team. But the constant harping on every achievement wears thin. Headlines like the Observer’s “Charlotte hits big time: We need 2 phone books,” make the city an easy target for ridicule from outsiders—if they can find the city on a map.

“The town of 400,000 is trying to be a big city,” the Chicago Tribune writes after the NFL awards the expansion franchise to Charlotte. Charlotte, says the Washington Post, has “the vacant calm of a place where it’s always 10:30 in the morning.” 

“If you want to know the truth of the matter, people we are talking to really don’t know where Charlotte is,” Jerry Richardson admits about his efforts to beat Baltimore, St. Louis, and Memphis for the team that will become the Carolina Panthers. “They can’t get Charlotte straight from Charleston.” 

***

MORE PEOPLE will find out about Charlotte throughout the decade. The population balloons by 145,000 in the 1990s, pushing the city to 541,000 residents by 2000. That’s not to mention the commuters who land in lakefront houses in Huntersville and Cornelius and Concord and the farm fields of Union County, now a shorter commute since the outerbelt of I-485 opened. They come from smaller cities in North Carolina, the fading factory towns of Ohio, and upstate New York, where the New York Times reports the local joke is: “One way to tell that you’re from Buffalo … is that half  of your friends moved to Charlotte, N.C., and the other half went to Raleigh.” 

Even more people come after NationsBank buys San Francisco-based BankAmerica in 1998 and begins moving the new banking giant’s headquarters to Charlotte. The move is made possible after years of McColl’s lobbying the Clinton administration to allow interstate banking. The merger creates Bank of America, a bank with $572 billion in assets, 30 million household customers, and 2 million business accounts. Crews replace the NationsBank sign on the tower downtown—the first of 45,000 signs that will change throughout the country. Charlotte is now a bank town like it has never been before. 

“You see our hand in almost everything,” McColl brags to a reporter after completing the Bank of America merger. “I’ve had more fun building a city than I have, perhaps, in building the bank.” 

And the banks have built the city. Bank of America owns more than 6 million square feet of real estate uptown and sets out to build new projects—a mixed-use development at the site of a former junkyard in Third Ward and another office tower at College and Fifth. In the mid-1990s, when McColl got tired of looking at crowds changing buses in front of his new tower at the Square, he had asked Mayor Richard Vinroot to help build a transit center. Vinroot told McColl the city might not have the money. “We’ll put up the damn $10 million,” McColl said while storming out of the breakfast meeting. “… And if you can cooperate, we’ll build it.”  

Now in 2001, with retirement looming for McColl and newcomers flowing into town every year, the city unveils a new plan for more construction in uptown. The plan calls for the city to spend $342 million on a new uptown arena to keep the Charlotte Hornets, who are now threatening to leave; two museums and an upgraded African American cultural center; a new minor league baseball stadium; and money for two arts organizations. Supporters call it a plan for a “world-class city.” That statement makes great fodder for cross-state rival Raleigh. “Charlotte, surely you can see how absurd you are,” scoffs Raleigh’s News & Observer in 2001. “You’re not a world-class city, and you invite ridicule when you say it.” 

Here in town, some voters are calling the arena idea a boondoggle. The uptown business crowd has “far too much influence,” says one at a public forum. Crowds pack City Council meetings and draw up petitions. “We’re counting on the common sense of the ordinary person who pays taxes in Charlotte to see through this slick campaign that they have,” one opponent tells the newspaper. 

Voters turn down the plan in a June 2001 referendum, despite all the TV commercials and voter registration drives backed by the business leaders who supported the arena plan. The next year, though, a group of business leaders led by Wachovia, Bank of America, and Duke Energy pledges $100 million for the new arena, and the city scrambles to come up with the remaining millions needed to build it. The Hornets leave town anyway. By 2005, a new NBA team, the Bobcats, plays in the new arena. But attendance is low and suburban voters grumble about the arena no one ever wanted. 

***

THERE ON East Trade Street, near the new transit center and the new arena, down the block from the new skyscrapers and office towers and new condos and hotels, a narrow rail line remains preserved. The same line where 20,000 people gathered back in 1852 to wait for a train from Columbia, South Carolina. The same line that brought iron and steel to the Confederate Naval Yard that once sat there. There’s nothing left now but a commemorative sign on the sidewalk that harried bus passengers and hyped-up basketball fans pass quickly without a second glance. 

Construction workers prepare the line to carry passengers once again. After years of planning and a few political battles, Charlotte will build a new light rail line along congested South Boulevard. And so, on a chilly Saturday in November 2007, hundreds of passengers wait for the first light rail train at Seventh Street Station. Mayor Pat McCrory peeks over the shoulder of the man at the controls, a former New York City bus driver. The train pulls out of the station and heads south, past the site of the old wharf where farmers had waited to unload their cotton in the 1870s, past the old site of the Military Academy where the cadets had fired their cannons to greet a South Carolina-bound train, past the Carson station and the site of the old gold mines, past Bland Street and the old trolley barn where the mill workers supporting striking trolley drivers were shot dead in 1919, past D.A. Tompkins’ Atherton mill rehabbed and reborn as offices and shops and restaurants. 

Picking up speed now and hugging the middle of South Boulevard, the train passes warehouses and drive-ins of the 1950s, zooms past the strip malls of Woodlawn and Tyvola and Archdale, where neon signs advertise food and goods from El Salvador and Honduras and Vietnam, past car lots and superstores and new apartment complexes, down to Arrowood, where the World War II wives once loaded anti-aircraft shells to feed their families while their husbands fought in Europe and the South Pacific. And, finally, it reaches the gleaming new parking deck on the edge of I-485. Out on the highway, thousands of cars speed past on what will be a miles-long loop around the city of Charlotte—past the clogged interchanges in the southern part of the city, toward the international airport to the west, toward the still-rural land around Mint Hill in the east, and on to the north, where bulldozers are working hard to complete the circle.

Chuck McShane is a frequent contributor to this magazine and the author of A History of Lake Norman: Fish Camps to Ferraris. Contact him at chuckmcshane@gmail.com. On Twitter: @chuckmcshane 

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