CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Much was made about Charlotte emerging on the big stage when Democrats awarded their 2012 national convention to the city last year. But the tidy city of gleaming skyscrapers built with money during the flush years of banking is more in its middle age, trying to reinvent itself without cutting all the ties to its big cash past.
Charlotte is certainly New South, traditionally progressive on civil rights and a place where religion and government and business can all mingle without stepping on each other’s toes. It’s a place where Republicans backed mass transit — a light rail line runs through downtown — and Democrats assured banking barons encountered no obstacles to making the city the second-biggest banking center in the nation.
But Charlotte isn’t a utopia. One in six residents lives below the poverty level. Its unemployment rate is one of the highest among the 50 biggest cities in the U.S. as those banks shed thousands of high-paying jobs. The per-capita income of the city hasn’t recovered from its high of just more than $40,000 before the Great Recession.
Even with those problems, Charlotte is still a city that Democrats would love to show off in a state that gave a surprising win to President Barack Obama in 2008. And Charlotte wants to take the chance to show itself off, too, as a place where some of the ideals cherished in America can work.
“These folks down here wanted to do big things and were willing to take risks,” said Richard Vinroot, who was the Republican mayor of Charlotte from 1991 to 1995.
Charlotte’s skyline is a testament to that kind of thinking. With six buildings over 40 floors, it’s the most dramatic cityscape in the Southeast outside of Atlanta. Almost every building in its downtown — called “Uptown” by locals — is less than 30 years old and the sidewalks, public art and green spaces are remarkably clean and sterile.
The biggest building is 60 stories and belongs to Bank of America. Another dominant building is the stadium of the Carolina Panthers. And perhaps the best way to understand modern Charlotte is through how the bank helped the professional football team come to town.
NFL officials worried the market wasn’t big or rich enough to support a team in the 1990s. So Hugh McColl, then CEO of NationsBank, the forerunner to Bank of America, offered the team loans for the stadium and vouched for the ownership group. When the NFL awarded Charlotte its team in 1993, even The Charlotte Observer gushed in a front page story about what that day meant: “And forever more, this single decision will likely change the way people across the country feel about what lies between Washington and Atlanta.”
The city threw a parade the next day. Owner Jerry Richardson was in the first car, while McColl and other prominent bankers were right behind.
The Panthers remain a big draw, most recently thanks to the on-field heroics of quarterback Cam Newton. Locals also embrace NASCAR, which has corporate offices in the area and holds races at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord.
As for the banks, their success can be connected to textiles, the first industry to thrive in the post-Civil War South. In 1905, over half the looms in the U.S. were within 100 miles of Gastonia, which lies about 15 miles to the west of Charlotte. Those plants struggled to get financing in New York, so well-off merchants and farmers around Charlotte banded together to lend them money, making their own fortunes in the process, said University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor David Goldfield.
Another key to Charlotte’s growth is its airport, which started as the city’s big Works Progress Administration Project during the Great Depression. The Charlotte-Douglas Airport in 2011 ranked as the sixth busiest airport in the world in takeoffs and landings. The airport is a busy hub for cargo, providing a quick way up and down the East Coast.
Charlotte has grown in every census since the eve of the Civil War, usually by at least a third. From 2000 to 2010, the city added more than 190,000 people, its population increasing by 35 percent. Some of this was a result of liberal annexation laws that allowed the city to expand. The city’s minorities also became the majority, as the white population dropped to 45 percent, according to the U.S. Census.
Race relations have also been critical to the city’s growth. Business leaders encouraged people not to fight court-ordered integration. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Charlotte schools and forced busing, the city accepted the change without violent protests.
The city elected Harvey Gantt, the man who integrated Clemson University in South Carolina, as its mayor in the 1980s. But in meetings with business leaders, he would often be the only black person in the room; he later lost two bids to unseat then-U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Even today, many of the movers and shakers at the banks are white.
David Taylor, who is CEO of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture, thinks Charlotte’s current mayor and its second black leader, Anthony Foxx, will do more for Charlotte’s minorities.
“The city has made sure that an African-American can make it to the table. Now I think we could use more diversity at that table. And I think we’re getting there,” Taylor said.
Religion also holds a special place in Charlotte. Convention goers landing at the airport will first get on the Billy Graham Parkway to get to the convention hall. But religion doesn’t dominate the city like it does in a lot of Southern towns with a strong Baptist presence.
“Charlotte is a little different from most other Southern cities because it has a strong Presbyterian base,” Goldfield said.
The model for Charlotte’s growth has changed too. The city in its exuberant youth used to look to Atlanta, and its grow-at-all-costs philosophy. In recent years, the city has become more reflective and started to emulate Portland, Ore., by looking to be a growing city that’s more environmentally responsible and compact.
The problems in the banking industry also didn’t hurt as bad as they could because Charlotte has diversified. The city is becoming a leader in energy too. One of its most recently-built skyscrapers, the 48-floor Duke Energy Center, houses what is now the largest utility in the nation after its namesake merged with Progress Energy recently.
“We would not have survived what happened a couple of years ago if there weren’t other enterprises to fall back on. We’re no longer a one-horse town,” Vinroot, the former mayor said.
The Democratic Convention is a coronation of sorts for a place nicknamed the Queen City. While Atlanta remains the king of the South, Charlotte boosters think the convention will leave little doubt that cities like Raleigh or Birmingham, Ala., or even the old Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., are at least a tier below.
Vinroot likes to think Charlotte’s willingness to accept anyone from anywhere — almost all of its most successful people are from somewhere else — is what drove its growth.
“It’s a can-do, get involved place,’ Vinroot said. “And I’ll contrast that with Richmond. I’ve never lived in Richmond, it’s a lovely place. But I my guess is there is a lot more interest in who your grandparents were than here in Charlotte. We’re more interested in you and what you can do and how quickly you can do it.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.