Keep the affluence, shuck the curse

These are tough times for a city accustomed to the feel of wind beneath its wings.

One minute, Charlotte's No. 2 in the nation in finance. The next, it's sweeping up shards after a local economic and civic giant shatters.

Wachovia will never be what it was before Citigroup snapped it up. It's also unlikely this city will be the crown in Citigroup's universe the way it was in Wachovia's.

Welcome back to earth, Charlotte. You're not bulletproof. Shake it off. We'll rebuild.

And, while we're at it, let's learn a fundamental lesson – one that will make us smarter and stronger.

Wealth, wealth everywhere

The median yearly income for households in Mecklenburg County is more than $50,000, the highest in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Census. Compare that with the state average, at $40,860, and you can see this is a wealthy place.

We have poverty, yes. But we also have assets. The evidence is everywhere.

How many places build two coliseums in 18 years? How many places construct a large-scale airport, and do it first-rate? How many have the means to cut a deal for a $26 million cultural arts campus?

How many places can venture into light rail, the NASCAR Hall of Fame and an arena – all in two years' time?

Yet affluence often comes with a curse. Charlotte has that curse. It needs to get rid of it.

When you have a lot of money to spend, that money tends to mean less than if you have a little.

Case in point: Do you know how much the city ought to be spending to build exhibits at the NASCAR Hall of Fame? Nobody on City Council who approved those expenses does. That's because the multi-million-dollar estimates for add-ons were drawn on a napkin. Nobody with the city can explain precisely where the numbers came from.

Ditto for Charlotte's South Corridor Light Rail line. The train is a huge success and a valuable resource for an urban region. But the cost doubled from original estimates.

As a city we are reckless with the details of money.

Recklessness is the canker infecting United Way of Central Carolinas. The committee of the board of the charitable organization made a secret decision to pay the former CEO a lavish $1.2 million in salary including a contribution last year to her retirement fund. Public anger at that boneheaded move will make fundraising tough.

The canker of money

The point is simple. When you have to count pennies, you care about the pennies. But when you're flush, not so much.

The wealth of the past two decades has fooled Charlotte-Mecklenburg into thinking we don't need to care about the pennies, when we do. A body blow to our economy is a chance to re-think that flawed ethic.

We need to keep the affluence. But we need to lose the curse.