Thursday, October 02, 2008

'Catastrophic, but not unprecedented'

I caught up today with Dan Morrill, historian-about-town (he's a UNC Charlotte history prof and consulting director for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission) and he offered perspective on the Wachovia debacle and how Charlotte has faced similar economic crises in the past. (A quick tip o the hat, also, to Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett's book "Sorting Out the New South City," which I used to fill in some details.)

"The current situation is serious. It is catastrophic. But is is hardly unprecedented," Morrill told me.

Charlotte was once a gold town -- gold mines, companies that supported mining, even a mint making gold coins. Then came the California gold rush. "All the gold mines left, and the gold mining companies left," Morrill said. The banks declined.

Three Charlotte men -- lawyer J.W. Osborne, physician C.J. Fox, and merchant/lawyer William Johnston -- decided the city needed revitalizing and they pushed to build a railroad. In 1852 the first passenger train of the Charlotte & South Carolina Railroad arrived. In 1854 the North Carolina Railroad arrived. "It made Mecklenburg for the first time a functioning part of North Carolina," Hanchett wrote. The railroads, Morrill said, "made Charlotte what it is."

The Civil War was an economic catastrophe for Charlotte, he said. So was the Great Depression.

After the Civil War, Edward Dilworth Latta and D.A. Tomkins launched the region's industrial age with cotton mills.

After the Depression, mayor and businessman Ben Douglas pushed for an airport. That built the city's role in commerce and distribution.

In each case, Morrill said, the decisive factor was assertive leadership.

Ahem. Who will play that role today? Politicians, who must always look to the next election, usually have a hard time taking a long-term view. The business oligarchy -- is that really the best leadership model for the 21st century?

My prediction is we'll see nonprofits -- foundations and philanthropic funders -- stepping in to play an expanded role.


ex-wach said...

Politicians are, by the nature of the job, short-termers?

Not in this town - which goes a long way toward explaining why there's no leadership.

Now I gotta go stand by an off-ramp to collect enough change to get me a Chic-Fil-A and a cup of cole slaw.

Anonymous said...

It won't be good for the short-term, but other companies will come here over time and fill up the space. We just need to make sure that BoFA isn't going anywhere!

Anonymous said...

"It won't be good for the short-term, but other companies will come here over time and fill up the space."

Really? We're talking a massive amount of office space - who out there will be interested? Personally, I'm decamping from Charlotte (where I've lived my whole life) for the DC area. Given all that has occurred, we may have seen a slight shift in the financial sector from NY/Charlotte to the DC area.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mary. So the lesson is that all we have to do is wait 50 years or so for prosperity to return to Charlotte? Whew!

I'll mark my calendar. In the meantime, in between times, ain't we got love?

Anonymous said...

I find it funny how most people complained about economic prosperity and how it has brought more traffic and this other bullcrap and now people are worried that we will not longer have that same economic prosperity (which I don't believe). I don't know names of companies off the top of my head but there are plenty of companies to recruit and with Charlotte being a top city/metro for relocating it shouldn't be too hard to convince companies to move here. It shouldn't be too difficult to convince Citigroup to invest in Charlotte either!

Anonymous said...

For the person leaving for DC. you need help packing?

You must think that Charlotte has nothing else to offer if you think that no one else would be interested in the space. Charlotte has a wonderful climate and is a great place to live and raise a family. I'm sure once the economy improves, we're going to see interest in other companies relocating here.

Anonymous said...

This is a setback, a big one. But I have faith in this town. Do you really think Citigroup won't locate much in the way of General Bank offices? I bet they will, if only for cost reasons (compare NY to CLT rent, wages), and also infrastructure (think Citigroup will re-create CIC in NY? In a word, no.

Anonymous said...

As Commissioner Norman Mitchell said: If you don't like Charlotte and tax increases, move and don't let the screen door hit you in the A.....

Anonymous said...

Also to the person leaving for DC. Good Luck up there. Housing is extremely high. We left here 10 years ago. In 1989 bought our house for 100K, in 1998 sold it for $105K, last year it was on the market for $280K. This is in Fredericksburg, 60 miles south of DC. I'm sure the market there is decreased alot, but that's just an idea of what housing like. This house was nothing spectacular, a ranch with a basement, 1300sf heated, 1-car garage. Nice big back yard though. My father lives up there in Vienna, traffic is a nightmare, I hate going up there. I grew up there, just about 45 miles south of DC. The largest employer there is the government (seeing as the Pentagon is the largest building in the US, and houses alot of defense government agencies and companies). But if the dems take office, this employer will likely loose jobs also. Again, best of luck, and commuting!!! :)

Anonymous said...

I encourage everyone to write to Sue Myrick, asking her to introduce legislation that will add Charlotte and Mecklenburg County to the list of blighted Appalachian counties.

It's never too soon to position ourselves. We'll then be eligible for more federal programs and assistance as this region stagnates due to the Wachovia crisis.

I realize we aren't located in the mountains, but I see where a congressman is trying to designate an economically depressed Northeastern Ohio county that borders Lake Erie as part of Appalachia. That way its leaders can take advantage of federal assistance.

If he can do it, surely Sue can.

Anonymous said...

I would never leave Charlotte but in defense of the guy who is - the school system in Northern Virginia is leaps and bounds better than the one that we have in Charlotte. Also, yes - the housing is expensive and unless you live near the subway the traffic can be awful but the culture, museums, restaurants and diversity offer quite a bit to the residents of the region. I'm very comfortable with Charlotte but I can certainly see the draw to a city that is - in all honesty - much more cosmopolitan than Charlotte. Good luck up there.

Anonymous said...

New York (compared to Charlotte) seems like it will always be a financial haven. It also has other with other countries through their nearby ports.

Anonymous said...

Some pearls of wisdom so you won’t be fooled again:

Always live at least one level beneath your means of support. The fall is a lot softer.

When something looks so good that even your mother-in-law wants to buy it, you didn’t sell it in time.

Bigger is better unless you live in a part of the country with no gasoline.

Nothing is permanent. Everyone needs to have a disaster recovery plan.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see Charlotte downsize. The people that get laid off can share their homes with others. With less traffic it will be safer to ride bikes. We can have community gardens. Parents will be able to stay home with their kids. More time to walk and play athletic games. All it takes is wanting it.

Mary Newsom said...

Responding to ex-wach, at 11:58 a.m., I tinkered with the wording to make clear that politicians always have to think of the next re-election a year or two away -- obviously some stay in office for years.

C Petit said...

Charlotte "Scandal Town"

1987 - PTL/Jim Bakker Fall

2008 - Wachovia Fall

Sounds like a great place to live! LOL

Anonymous said...

"I'd like to see Charlotte downsize."

Charlotte will never downsize. It will continue to grow. You don't get smaller (unless you become a city like Detroit!), you can only get bigger. So, sorry, it ain't gonna happen!

Anonymous said...

"You don't get smaller (unless you become a city like Detroit!)"

Let's see. Detroit = automobiles and Charlotte = banks. Certainly seems possible.

I looked forever to get a job down in Charlotte and every head hunter I spoke with mentioned the same companies: Wachovia, BOA, Duke, Lowes and Hearst Publishing. If that's all that is supporting the economy (and related consulting / accounting partnerships) then you are in for a world of trouble. Best of luck to everyone in Charlotte. You're going to need it!

Anonymous said...

My point was that you can't get smaller and maintain economic prosperity and without turning into a dump. You have infrastructure that is already built, such as offices and homes, that are not going to magically disappear. Charlotte is and will continue to be a major city/metro area to relocate to and companies and people will continue to move here regardless of Wachovia.

Anonymous said...

"I looked forever to get a job down in Charlotte"

You shouldn't move ANYWHERE without a job. It just isn't a smart thing to do. You have thousands of people moving to the Charlotte area every year and they are all fighting for a job position - of course it is going to be competitive/difficult!

Anonymous said...

In 1997 incumbent Mayor Pat McCrory faced a democratic challenger who warned that the banking system would collapse.

Does enyone remember the guys name? Low and behold he was right on the money (no oun intended).

More irony, McCrory is running for Governer at the very moment the financial system is imploding, while taking his city with it.

Anonymous said...

Hi folks,
Less you forget, BofA is now the #2 depositor in the country after acquiring Merrill. I think you can expect to see further expansion. Since BofA cannot grow their retail arm they will continue to make acquisitions. that is but one possible way to fill the gap left behind. I can certainly understnad everyone's fear of the unknown but this too shall pass. There are many good things about Charlotte and North Carolina to attract companies. It should not take but several years to get back on track. Hang in there.

Anonymous said...

"You shouldn't move ANYWHERE without a job. It just isn't a smart thing to do. You have thousands of people moving to the Charlotte area every year and they are all fighting for a job position - of course it is going to be competitive/difficult"

I didn't move to Charlotte, I was conducting my search remotely. My point was that even the headhunters admitted that there were extremely limited employment options outside of the banks and the companies that service them. I do think that Charlotte is a great city that will get through this but it is definitely going to be a challenge for the mayor and other city boosters.

Anonymous said...

Is this the opportunity to reinvent ourselves as something different or should our efforts focus on how we keep Charlotte starched?

Perhaps, instead of trying (unsuccessfully) to become something we are not, we should embrace our inner starchiness?

What could "Keep Charlotte Starched" mean to us (in a positive way)?

How could this be used to expand civic initiatives?