I had a close friend who died of cancer. About a year before she died, she said something I've never forgotten: “I'm so glad I got cancer,” she said, “because I've met so many great people I would never have known.”
I don't think she truly preferred to have cancer. But she understood there are unforeseen blessings in even the worst situations.
And I don't think Charlotte – until a few days ago an unlikely banking powerhouse, headquarters to two top banks – will go into a fatal decline when Wachovia is sold.
But like my friend, I think positives can arise from a bad situation.
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This is, I propose, time for Charlotte to end its dependence on Big and learn to appreciate Small.
I'm not talking about the city shrinking. I'm talking about civic values and economic focus.
Think of an ecosystem such as a redwood forest. Most of us notice the towering trees. But without some very small things – fungi, insects and micro-organisms in the soil – the majestic trees can't survive. The same is true in the oceans. Even the gigantic whales need tiny plankton to survive.
Charlotte's civic leaders over the decades have paid a lot of attention to the economic, social and cultural whales. They haven't focused much on the tiny organisms – the small businesses, entrepreneurs, little shops and small buildings, artists and creative dreamers. Who needs little artists when you have big bankers?
“The whole city has been organized around the big guys,” Lisa Lee Morgan told me Friday. She is an entrepreneur in what many believe could become a major economic sector for Charlotte and North Carolina: green technology. And she is the daughter of the late Bill Lee, who for years as CEO of Duke Power was one of this city's biggest big guys.
For more than a century, a parade of Mr. Bigs ran this city and region: mill owner and publisher D.A. Tompkins. Department store magnate John Belk. Bankers Hugh McColl Jr. and Ed Crutchfield.
The citizenry's submission to these oligarchs is probably a relic of Charlotte's mill town history. Long before this was a glossy-painted bank town, it was a gritty mill town. The cotton mills here and throughout the Piedmont Carolinas offered wages to subsistence farmers, but in exchange the mill workers submitted to an economic system that resembled feudalism as much as it did capitalism. Mill owners built houses, even whole towns, for workers. But the owners controlled many facets of the workers' lives, even dictating which church they should attend.
I think its mill town history helps explain why Charlotte came to depend on all those Mr. Bigs. If you weren't a CEO, your attitude was probably “Best to keep your head down and let the bosses run things.”
Along with big leaders came a parallel yen for other big things – big bank towers, big league sports, big churches, big houses on big lots with big SUVs in the drive. In Charlotte, big equals good.
Consider uptown development. It has depended on Big Projects: a civic center, stadium, performing arts center, convention center, basketball arena, and ever bigger bank headquarters buildings. Small buildings and humble older spots haven't had much chance of survival. The result is an uptown that's booming but lacking historical layers or richness of texture.
Today, though, as one of its two Big Banks is about to be sold, Charlotte is in economic shock. Thousands of Wachovia workers worry about their jobs. Thousands of businesses that depend on Wachovia worry, too. It's likely we're all in for a time of uncomfortable economic restructuring. Even Charlotte's famous self-confidence is tattered.
The loss of Wachovia closes a door. It's fitting to mourn. But other doors could open. Maybe this economic blow will be the proverbial two-by-four that gets the mule's attention.
Yes, size matters. But that isn't the same as saying Big is always best.