A pair of television reporters spent some time in Charlotte this month posing a question that might be uncomfortable to consider.
The team, from the award-winning PBS show “Frontline,” spent about two weeks talking to Charlotte's community and business leaders. Among the larger questions it asked, the Squeeze hears, is this: How does Charlotte reimagine its economic future?
That presumes that there's some reimagining to do, given that we have gone from two bank headquarters to one – with that one, Bank of America, hobbled by the credit crisis.
Has the local economy been irrevocably changed by the recession? We went to the economist who looks closest at the city and the region, UNC Charlotte's John Connaughton.
Are Charlotte's days as a boomtown over?
“No,” he says. “That's crazy. I think we'll have more people employed in the financial, insurance and real estate industries in five years than we do today.”
More? Here's why: When Connaughton does some reimagining, he looks at a city not with a weakened banking spine, but one with more financial power.
“I don't think people realize how the financial industry is going to change,” he says. “It's going to be a lot of power concentrated in a few firms.”
Yes, he acknowledges, one of those firms – Wells Fargo – took over Charlotte-based Wachovia, but he notes that significant regional operations – the Eastern U.S. – will remain here.
“If it's a better-run bank, it could be better for us overall,” Connaughton says.
“It's going to be a giant. We'll have four firms conducting 60 percent of business in the U.S., and one of those – maybe the largest – is Bank of America.”
The “Frontline” report on Charlotte will air sometime this spring, producer Ofra Bikel tells the Squeeze. Her intent, she said, was to do a program on the impact the financial crisis has had on people, and she thought Charlotte offered a more intimate connection between banks and citizens than New York, the nation's biggest banking city.
What has she seen thus far? First, that we're a little defensive about the banks.
Actually, not just a little defensive.
“The town is very defensive about the banks,” she says. “I hear a lot of people saying, ‘We have a lot of other industries.' Of course you have.”
She also has seen an outlook here that's similar to Connaughton's – and harder to find in New York. “I think Charlotteans take it better than the people in New York,” she says. “They're very optimistic.”
Such perspectives were a bit surprising to Bikel, who says people are handling the crisis differently here than up North.
“I think Charlotteans take it better than the people in New York,” she says. “They're very optimistic.”
That might be, she speculates, a factor of churches here helping more people sort through their difficulties. But she is unsure.
“I'm a little perplexed, to tell the truth,” she says. “I'm not quite sure what to make of it.”
That's why she'll be returning later this month to conduct more interviews and begin shooting.
We'll tell you what we hear.
Online readers say:
Maybe we should first agree what “boomtown” means. If you think Wells and BOA will go back to paying their employees what they made just last year, you are mistaken.
I would like to see our city's boom slow down so we can concentrate on smart growth....