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Charlotte leaders on Houston trip seeking tips on growing energy industry

HOUSTON The word “utopia” doesn’t immediately leap to mind when you drive into this sprawling city dominated by oil companies and stifling 98-degree heat.

But it has enough good things going to draw about 130 business, civic and political leaders from Charlotte. Convened by the Charlotte Chamber for its latest fact-finding trip to U.S. cities, they arrived here Wednesday seeking ideas on everything from growing the Queen City’s energy sector to boosting its arts scene and attracting jobs from overseas firms.

While bank-heavy Charlotte battles unemployment rates above 8 percent as it struggles to recover from the financial meltdown, Houston boasts a resurgent economy with unemployment under 6 percent.

During a lunch at the Petroleum Club, Houston Mayor Annise Parker said the presence of multinational oil and gas firms helped her city become one of the first to exit the recession.

“I’d love to say that was from great leadership, but that was (due to) the underlying sectors of our economy.”

The visitors from Charlotte said they hoped the Queen City might diversify its economy by emulating Houston’s success as an energy hub.

“We’re transitioning. We’re still a strong banking city,” Duke Energy Executive Vice President Marc Manly said. “There’s a magic sauce (in Houston ) that hopefully ... we can bring back to Charlotte.”

But others noted that, unlike Houston, Charlotte doesn’t have a port and isn’t situated near oil-producing areas.

Oil and gas company executives on a panel discussion moderated by Piedmont Natural Gas CEO Tom Skains said Charlotte has a budding energy sector led by companies like Duke Energy and Piedmont. They said the city needs to build on that, as well as its banking sector.

“Every energy activity is going to need to be banked,” said Spectra Energy CEO Greg Ebel. “The backbone is there.”

Later, the group heard from Houston arts executives who pointed to the city’s thriving “creative economy” as another linchpin of its success. Jonathan Glus, head of the Houston Arts Alliance, said his organization is equivalent to Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council.

One big difference: The Houston alliance gets funding from a hotel occupancy tax. The Arts & Science Council has launched a task force to look for ways to stem a decline in giving campaigns.

In 2012, the ASC raised $6.5 million, a 36 percent decline from 2002.

Linda Lockman-Brooks, head of the ASC board, said she might have Glus come to Charlotte to talk about Houston’s arts funding model.

“We’re trying to get in front of it,” she said. “We’re getting smart people in a room to figure out what to do.”

The trip marked the chamber’s second to Houston in recent years. Chamber President Bob Morgan said the group last visited in 1998.

Frazier: 704-358-5145; @ericfraz on Twitter
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