Even Charlotte’s most ardent backers admit that the Queen City is, in many respects, an Atlanta wannabe. After the Civil War, the Georgia capital led the way to the New South of industrialization and economic development, says Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, and Atlanta’s success in growing its airport to attract business inspired Charlotte to do likewise.
While aping Atlanta, Charlotte competed with it. Charlotte-based NCNB Corp. gobbled up Atlanta-based C&S/Sovran Corp. to become the nation’s third-largest bank in 1991 and later grew into the behemoth known as Bank of America Corp. The rapid rise of its homegrown banks made the Queen City the nation’s second-largest financial center after New York. “In the banking competition,” Morgan says, “Charlotte came out on top.” Atlanta leaders frequently peer into the rearview mirror at their rivals up Interstate 85 and worry the smaller city seems to be gaining. Some have conceded that Charlotte has addressed critical issues such as transportation better than their city has, which could give it a competitive advantage.
But in many measures, Charlotte has a long way to go. Its metro area has 1.7 million people, less than a third of greater Atlanta’s 5.4 million. Its economy grew faster between 2001 and last year — 46% to 33% — but it was still less than half the size of Atlanta’s. Given what’s happened this year, Charlotte might even be losing ground. The two metro areas’ unemployment rates don’t usually differ by more than a few tenths of a percentage point. But in September, Charlotte’s 11.6% was more than a full percentage point higher than Atlanta’s.
Charlotte also has fallen further behind in the hunt for major corporate headquarters. Wachovia Corp.’s purchase by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. last year cut the metro area’s roster of Fortune 500 companies by one, while Atlanta’s increased by one, giving it a three-company lead. As BofA’s board mulls who will be CEO when Ken Lewis leaves at the end of the year, many local leaders fear it will pick someone who will start the bank’s exodus.
Morgan admits Charlotte has entered a period of transition and increased uncertainty. But its leaders have moved quickly to recover from woes in the financial industry. They’ve been pitching the region’s low living costs, a ready supply of affordable office space and an abundance of skilled financial-services workers. Not only has that message helped it land expansions by financial-services companies such as GMAC Inc., the city this year has wooed big projects in the energy and health-care sectors. “Is Charlotte less competitive?” Morgan says. “I don’t have any evidence that we are.”
Buckling the beltway
Motorists will be able to travel Interstate 485 around Charlotte five years earlier than the latest projections — but later than originally forecast. Gov. Beverly Perdue announced a plan to build the last five miles of the 65-mile loop by 2015. She plans to use a method, new to the state but used elsewhere, in which builders help pay for the $340 million project — including widening a portion of I-85 and an interchange connecting the two roads — before being reimbursed. State leaders say they plan to use that approach on other transportation projects. I-485, started in 1988, originally was supposed to be finished in 2003.