T hese days, Charlotte is doing a lot of what Charlotte seems to do best – building, growing, and adding people and neighborhoods and businesses.
If you drive around uptown, you’ll see more than a few construction cranes. They were a common sight until the recent recession, when the financial crisis sent our bank-heavy economy into a swoon.
We lost 4,000 financial-sector jobs just from 2008 to 2009. Our city, long dependent on the kindnesses of its “two rich uncles” – hometown financial giants Bank of America and Wachovia – suddenly found one (Wachovia) gobbled up by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo and the other (Bank of America) hobbled by problematic mergers and bad mortgages.
But we’ve survived. With the local, state and national economy improving, Charlotte and its growing flock of construction cranes have gone back to building.
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The Charlotte Chamber’s second-quarter report on new and expanded businesses noted that the city has recovered the jobs it lost during the recession, and its job growth is outpacing the state and nation.
Big gains have come in the business and professional services sector, which added 9,000 jobs over the past year. Many of those jobs spun off our energy and financial services sector, which remains a big part of our economy.
Increasingly, though, our economy is diversifying. MetLife in 2013 brought its U.S. retail hub and 1,300 jobs to the south Charlotte suburb of Ballantyne.
North of uptown, Swedish appliance maker Electrolux is doubling the size of its U.S. headquarters in University Research Park.
And in July, Sealed Air Corp., best known as the maker of Bubble Wrap, announced that it is moving its headquarters from New Jersey to Charlotte and bringing nearly 1,300 more high-paying jobs.
All that business growth fuels population growth. From 2000 to 2010, population surged here by 32 percent. (The nation’s population grew by 10 percent during that time).
All those newcomers last year pushed Mecklenburg County past the 1 million mark in population. That made us the 23rd largest metropolitan area in the United States.
Many of those cranes you see around town are hoisting new apartment complexes skyward to house the new residents. Officials with Atlanta-based Novare Group had just broken ground this spring on their $70 million, 24-story SkyHouse tower uptown when word leaked that a second one might go right next to it.
Apartment-building has soared to record levels, and some are warning that we’re overbuilding and risking an apartment “bust” cycle.
That hasn’t stopped complexes from popping up all over the booming South End section of the city, fueled by proximity to our Lynx light rail system. A new extension, under construction from uptown to UNC Charlotte, figures to spark similar growth spurts north of the center city.
It all makes for a city that feels dynamic – one that’s still on its way to whatever it will be when it grows up. One legitimate criticism: Because we’ve been so focused on what gets built next, we haven’t preserved enough of a sense of what we were. “This is a city where there is money to build new ideas,” says Tom Hanchett, a historian with the Levine Museum of the New South. “The thing that’s difficult is that because the city has been so prosperous, there’s almost no stock of old buildings.”
That’s not to say everybody shares in the fruits of growth, or that growth doesn’t come with its own headaches.
Charlotte’s prosperous southern and northern suburbs are booming, while its blue-collar west and east sides struggle. Finding affordable housing is hard, and city officials have faced angry crowds when they proposed subsidized housing in the suburbs.
Our transportation infrastructure is struggling to keep up. The Charlotte Area Transit System finds itself $5 billion short of what it needs to underwrite its 2030 mass transportation plan. A battle has erupted around the state’s plan to widen Interstate 77 north of the city using toll lanes.
And widening I-77’s increasingly congested stretch south to the state line will cost more than $1 billion. The state hasn’t settled on a plan for building that.
So, that’s Charlotte’s development story. Accelerating growth, powered by lots of new faces. Some challenges, but plenty of optimism, too.
Take a drive around town. Perhaps you’ll get a glimpse of all that for yourself. And a construction crane or two.