The Comeback

Charlotte has lost its mojo, but we can get it back, if we look in the right places

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As the dust begins to settle (we hope) from the financial whirlwinds that swept through Charlotte last year, the events are beginning to coalesce into a single question:

Has Charlotte lost its mojo?

For as long as most of us can remember, Charlotte has seemed a magical city where the seemingly impossible became commonplace.

Get an NBA franchise in a town that could barely support minor league baseball? Never happen.

Get an NFL franchise in a town that didn't even have Division I college football? Never happen.

Create a unified arts organization in a town where the symphony is always broke and the best-known painter is a portraitist? Never happen.

Turn two banks that weren't even the biggest ones in the state into national financial powerhouses? Never happen.

Turn a regional electric company into a national energy behemoth? Never happen.

Build a unified, national model of public transportation in a town that pretty much defines suburban sprawl? Never happen.

Turn a redneck activity that involves cars driving around in circles all Sunday afternoon into a national sports and marketing phenomenon? Never happen.

But then with shocking rapidity, things began to fall apart. Wachovia started reporting ever-widening losses, and the heretofore much-admired CEO was summarily shown the door. And then in a flight to avoid being taken over by regulators, Wachovia sold itself to Wells Fargo for pennies on the dollar.

In a fit of apparent brain death, the board of directors of the United Way of Central Carolinas gave its president a $1.2 million payday. Then, when public outrage over that largesse became too much to tolerate, the board did the only honorable thing: it fired the president. She has retained noted legal pit bull Bill Diehl, setting up a clash that will be public, embarrassing, and expensive for the United Way. The 2008 fund drive came up $20 million short.

As corporations retrenched in the face of mounting economic bad news, NASCAR sponsorships dried up. Car teams consolidated and shed thousands of workers and watched in dismay as the domestic automobile industry, which forms the very foundation of the sport, went into a death spiral.

Charlotte, of course, has faced challenges before. A lawsuit by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund questioned Charlotte's commitment to school desegregation. Retail flight into shopping malls and strip centers emptied out Charlotte's downtown, leaving only office buildings and parking lots that formed a ghost town after 5 p.m. The textile industry, which has always been driven by the lowest possible labor costs, moved to Mexico and China, leaving behind hulking brick relics of a bygone era.

In each of these instances and more, Charlotte was able to regroup and make something even better out of what was left. Although the forced busing that arose from the lawsuit was and is controversial, for a while Charlotte had one of the most integrated school systems in the nation. An aggressive urban redevelopment effort spearheaded by what is now Bank of America brought people and life back downtown, creating a vibrant residential and entertainment district. Developers, who are probably the most optimistic businesspeople on the planet, saw a future for the abandoned textile mills, turning them into hip office spaces and trendy condos and apartments.
It could happen again, and the Charlotte way is to believe that it will. However, for good things to happen, people have to make them happen.

School desegregation came about because of the courage and leadership of people such as Judge James McMillan and school board member Dick Spangler. Downtown redevelopment was championed by Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl and his team. Tony Pressley and a host of developers transformed the textile villages of South End and NoDa into interesting, prosperous communities.

What is a little unsettling right now is that the next crop of these kinds of leaders is not immediately evident. For one thing, the usual sources of leadership have changed in such a way that they no longer are good sources. For example, when downtown redevelopment began, Bank of America was a strictly North Carolina bank known as NCNB. Now it is an international financial corporation, and its leaders are focused on places and events outside of Charlotte.

And the leaders that we are left with are proving to be somewhat incompetent. It is one thing to put our faith in the leaders of a successful business or governmental enterprise. But it is doubtful that we want much of the kind of thinking that brought down Wachovia, hamstrung the United Way, and made a laughingstock of the school board.

It may be that what Charlotte is going to need going forward is not new people to run old institutions, but entire new institutions to power our city. We may need to think some radical thoughts.

We probably ought to rethink our whole school operation, perhaps even breaking our countywide system into smaller districts that can more easily represent the neighborhoods they encompass.

The business community continues to be a source of strong leadership, but it should no longer be the sole source. The days of leading businesses "loaning" their executives to the city and county have passed. Even Mayor Pat McCrory, who had essentially a no-show job at Duke Energy for the first fourteen years of his tenure, says he needs to find a job. We need to look to the schools, to the nonprofits, to the stay-at-home parents, the churches and synagogues, maybe even the homeless shelters, for our next generation of leadership.
Which brings us to the point of where we want to be led. The conceit that Charlotte is a banking and financial service town is a relatively recent one. Textiles used to be the backbone here, not just processing the fibers, but providing the machinery to companies across the region. Layered on top of that was sales of all kinds, as well as product distribution. We need to get back to that mind-set of a diverse economy—which we have, although the newspaper and television newscasts would have us believe otherwise.

Along with that is the idea of what makes a "Charlottean." The Tryon Street banker with button-down shirt collar and polished wingtips is a caricature that has become a symbol. Like the Biblical poor, we will always have them with us. But our population is more diverse, and its diversity needs to be more widely seen. Creativity doesn't wear a suit and tie, nor does it come in tie-dye and sandals. It is chinos and golf shirts in the industrial parks, it is jeans and work shirts on construction jobs and in a thousand other guises around town. It represents the creativity we need to remold this community, just the way it has been remolded in the past, time and again, as adversity has struck.

Mojo is elusive. One minute you've got it, the next minute it is gone. And you can never get it back the same way you got it the first time. But we've had a good taste of it, and it is still with us if we look to the future rather than to the past.

Kenneth S. Allen was the editor of this magazine from 1994 to 1999. He is president of the Allen Agency.

Categories: First Person, Opinion, The Buzz