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What's next for Charlotte after Wachovia's fall?

A city proud of the prestige and prosperity that its two brawling banks bestowed now worries what will happen when one goes away.

By Peter St. Onge
pstonge@charlotteobserver.com

For a generation, as a bank town, Charlotte swaggered.

We grew from Top 10 in banking to Top 5 to Top 2. We rebuilt our downtown, got ourselves an international airport, a football team, a basketball team, twice.

We compared our rising property values, enjoyed our growing restaurant scene, smiled at cranes and frowned at traffic, but we knew what it signaled: prosperity.

And we expected more. Charlotte recruited other cities' young professionals and hunted other cities' business headquarters – leaving other chambers of commerce to glumly wonder what was next.

Monday, it was our turn.

Wachovia Corp. – pummeled by toxic loans – announced it was being taken over by Citigroup. Wachovia's retail banking headquarters will remain in Charlotte, but the investment banking division – and the corporate decision makers – will be based in New York. No longer will we be a city of two brawling banks, competing in business and sponsorship and charity.

“Something significant and historic just happened here about which we can't even begin to predict the consequences,” said Jeff Michael, director of UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute. “On the one hand, we may have just witnessed the beginning of the end of Charlotte's upward trajectory, or alternatively, we may be getting ready to see just how resilient this city really is.”

Over the next few months, important details, such as job losses and personnel changes, will become clear.

What's harder to grasp is the intangible impact on Charlotte.

On Monday, the first signs:

In uptown, a Charlotte Chamber statement that read like a condolence card: “We are grateful for the role that Wachovia and its predecessor First Union have played in the growth and development of Charlotte into a great American city. Our thoughts and concerns are with all Wachovia stakeholders who now face an uncertain future.”

In uptown, an urgent midday meeting included – in person and by phone – a who's who of local, state and federal leaders. “We didn't spend a lot of time talking about the Panthers' win on Sunday,” said Michael Smith, president of Center City Partners.

Across the city, there were stories of Wachovia employees losing the value of their company stock, or looking for ways to cut back on spending as their jobs were thrown into uncertainty almost overnight. Some are putting houses up for sale in an already glutted market. “In the 24 years that I've been in real estate, I haven't seen anything like this,” said Dot Munson, president of the Charlotte Regional Realtor Association.

At lunchtime Monday, Wachovia employees streamed out along the company's home base of South Tryon Street, with some heading to The Green, where they talked with concern on cell phones. Employees said they felt stunned, numb and dumbfounded at the bank's fall.

A worker at a bank branch worried the bank's hometown feel will be lost.

“I never worked with a company that made you feel like you're a family – that your brothers and sisters work with you – and we kind of feel like that's not going to carry over,” the employee said.

The bank's sale is an economic story Charlotte is unaccustomed to telling. On Monday, questions lined up like creditors – what will happen to the lawyers, accountants, appraisers and others who work with Wachovia?

“Anytime you lose a headquarters, it has an impact on the amount of work a company does in the marketplace,” said John Lassiter, president of Carolina Legal Staffing and a Charlotte City Council member.

In Charlotte, the big banks for years have seemed to enjoy an influence that went beyond the workers they employed. Finance and insurance jobs make up less than 8 percent of the region's employment. There are seven other Fortune 500 companies in the area, in fields as diverse as steel making, discount retailing and home improvement. Health care, motorsports and energy industries have flourished. But on many civic and business questions, the role of the banks has been key.

There were worries about the intersection of business and entertainment. Will Citigroup continue to sponsor the Wachovia Championship, which brought Tiger Woods to the city? Will the arts community suffer? Wachovia gave more than $8 million to area charitable organizations last year. Such decisions about life in Charlotte may be made, in larger part, from outside of Charlotte.

“In a landscape that is changing daily, it's too soon to speculate on the long-term impact of this announcement to the community, cultural sector, and ASC,” said Lee Keesler, president and CEO of the Arts & Science Council.

The biggest question: How will this affect Charlotte's growth?

Will the sale of Wachovia hurt Charlotte's status as a prospering market, a place for headquarters to come, a place for entrepreneurs and technology companies to flourish?

On this, business and community leaders spoke up Monday, with a voice accumulated from years of successes.

Charlotte still has a vibrant work force, they said, with an airline hub and inexpensive office space. Plus, Wachovia's retail banking headquarters will remain here – and, of course, Bank of America.

“Charlotte is a city that has always reinvented itself, and this is just the next reinvention,” said Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, where the main exhibit is called “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers.” “It has never been a one-horse economy. It is a center of wholesaling and regional offices and continues to be a bank center.”

“We got to remember that Charlotte is going to be fine,” said Smith of Center City Partners. “We are the same city we were on Friday. We are strong and have a diverse economy. … We continue to offer a great quality of life and have a very talented workforce.”

Charlotte Chamber president Bob Morgan contemplated the city's strengths Monday.

“We have a first-class cultural facility, and that's not going to change,” Morgan said. “I'm watching out my window and the crane is still moving on the Mint Museum and the Bechtler (Art) Museum and the new tower.”

Yes, the cranes. Time magazine mentioned them less than a week ago, in a story titled “Postcard from Charlotte” that lauded Charlotte's climate of success. “While the rest of the country is sinking,” the story said, “Charlotte is soaring, with 28 construction cranes downtown.”

But on this day, when Banktown became bank town, people weren't looking up.

Staff writers Jen Aronoff, Amy Baldwin, Jefferson George, Kerry Hall, Stella Hopkins, Elizabeth Leland, Mary Newsom, Christina Rexrode and Kirsten Valle contributed.

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