Viewpoint

When Republicans come to town, this should be Charlotte’s defining image

Charlotte needs to decide on an image to project to the nation during the Republican National Convention next year.
Charlotte needs to decide on an image to project to the nation during the Republican National Convention next year. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

When delegates to the Republican National Convention arrive in 18 months, what image of Charlotte will greet them? St. Louis has the arch. Seattle has the space needle. New Orleans has Bourbon Street. What is Charlotte’s definitive symbol?

History suggests two possibilities. One is ambition. Named for an English queen, Charlotte has long sought to live up to its royal lineage by becoming a significant place. Another is the energy to fulfill that ambition.

When gold was discovered in 1799, the city schemed to secure a branch of the United States Mint, which beginning in 1837 made Charlotte a good place to make money. In the 1840s and ‘50s it sold bonds that made Charlotte the junction of two railroads and a regional distribution center. In the 1880s and ‘90s it cheered the building of cotton mills that attracted blue-collar workers and created white-collar wealth.

In the 1930s and ‘40s those mills faded as suppliers of textile machinery, chemicals, dyes, trucking, and accounting turned Charlotte into a textile service center.

After the 1914 establishment of the Federal Reserve Bank, Charlotte finagled to win a branch that made the city a financial magnet. In the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, bank mergers and expansions gave it the energy that lights its skyline today.

Sparking many of those advances was another energy, one generated by turbines and whisked along high-tension wires. Charlotte got electricity in 1886 but in 1904 when the Southern Power Company established headquarters here, it got a powerhouse. Drawing on the deep pockets of James B. Duke, Southern Power (now Duke Energy) could have established headquarters anywhere, but chose Charlotte for its entrepreneurial energy.

Southern Power not only assured the city a reliable source of electricity but it also brought human energy — engineers, hydrologists, foresters, lawyers, managers and investors — whose expertise greatly expanded Charlotte’s human capital.

Those experts wanted for Charlotte the quality of life they had known elsewhere and set about acquiring it in the arts, sciences, education, and politics. William States Lee, the company’s chief engineer, was the first president of the modern Chamber of Commerce.

The presence of such experts has brought others of like mind to make Charlotte a more attractive place to live and work. It also has made Duke Energy one of the largest, most admired public utilities in America.

So it would be fitting for Charlotte to present itself to the Republicans and the rest of the country as The Energy Hub, an image positioning the city for future prominence.

To symbolize that image it should place solar panels on the roofs of most of its public buildings and encourage private companies to do the same, as Charlotte architect Murray Whisnant has suggested.

It wouldn’t cost much and there’s still time to get it done. It would be a good way to put more stars in the Queen City’s crown.

Jack Claiborne is a retired associate editor of the Observer.
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