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Who helps city bounce back? You

As Patrick Cannon was making his way to the federal courthouse in Charlotte Tuesday morning, former Bank of America chairman Hugh McColl was reflecting on what it will take to keep Charlotte strong going forward.

McColl’s remarks to 300 civic and business leaders visiting from Louisville and Lexington, Ky., were not driven by the former mayor’s felony guilty plea. Cannon’s name, in fact, never came up. But as the Kentucky visitors pressed McColl on how Charlotte became and will continue to be a leading city, his answers carried greater resonance given the events unfolding across town.

McColl urged leaders in both the public and private sectors to step up and take ownership of Charlotte’s future. He suggested that Charlotte residents generally are too passive about sustaining and improving a great city.

“The strength is, we have the bones in place,” McColl told the crowd. “The weakness is, too many citizens take this for granted. They think someone else can handle it. We had two rich uncles [BofA and First Union/Wachovia] die and the rest of the family hasn’t yet come to the party.”

McColl noted that Charlotte has a council-manager form of government, in which the mayor is primarily a figurehead.

“But the mayor sets the tone,” McColl added. “The mayor has to engage the public and say this is what we need to do – not the federal or state government, but we the citizens have to do X, Y and Z.”

The student body president at the University of Kentucky asked McColl for advice for his generation. McColl replied that he is concerned that younger generations might not be committed to civic endeavors.

“Your generation needs to enhance the Louisvilles and Lexingtons and Charlottes of the world,” McColl told the student. “That role goes unpraised. It’s everybody’s business.”

McColl’s urgency around civic-mindedness would be an astute message any time. But it’s particularly on point at this moment, when Cannon’s corruption has dented the public’s faith in local government and marred Charlotte’s reputation.

There may be further fallout; U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said Tuesday that prosecutors are still trying to determine whether this episode was only “Cannon-deep and Cannon-wide” or something more pervasive.

Either way, Charlotte has a recovery to pull off. McColl knows a thing or two about building cities, and he’s right: Now more than ever, we need strong, ethical public and private officials to lead, and all of the citizenry to chime in. Getting educated about the candidates in this fall’s elections would be a good place to start.

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