As steel shaped Pittsburgh, banking defines Charlotte
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It is the end of the work day in this shiny Southern city, and young men in blue open-collared shirts, flat-front pants and cell-phone headsets hustle out of Bank of America Corporate Center. Some head for Raspberry Oscar martinis in the bank-owned Hearst Tower. Others go for the Osso Buco Milanese -- a favorite veal dish -- at Luce Ristorante, a bank-owned space outfitted with gold chandeliers, Italian marble and hand-painted frescoes.
Just a few blocks south, men with the same blue buttoned-down, no-tie look exit Wachovia Center for happy hour at the adjacent Mimosa Grill -- a favorite Wachovia Corp. hangout where the conversation often turns to interest rates and a glass of wine goes well with the pecan-crusted goat cheese salad.
There is a remarkable amount of newly well-to-do people and new urbanity on display in this once-sleepy city, where the two largest banks employ 32,000 and one out of every five workers now has a finance job of some kind.
Bank of America and Wachovia Corp. are the first- and fourth-largest financial institutions in the country, and they dominate this metropolitan area of 1.5 million as steel did in Pittsburgh a half-century ago, defining the city for outsiders and shaping Charlotte's culture from the inside. Their influence is visible in everything from downtown development to the arts to charities to the wooing of sports teams to traffic problems to population growth to the newfound wealth of bank employees, who are building larger and larger homes in well-heeled Charlotte neighborhoods such as Eastover and South Park.
"There is so much money in this town it is just absolutely incredible," said Dan Morrill, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
As the banks expanded with aggressive acquisitions of rivals around the country, the Charlotte metro area added 300,000 people in the 1990s and another 264,000 in the six years since.
Household income is up 63 percent since 1990, to $59,267, as the total number of well-paying finance-related jobs in the region doubled to about 60,000, a figure that includes mortgage banks, venture capital firms, accounting and insurance (across the country such jobs increased about 20 percent during that time).
Now the nation's second-largest banking center after New York, Charlotte is No. 1 nationally in arts and science giving per capita. It also is one of the most ozone-polluted cities in the United States -- a fact that surely does not surprise commuting motorists stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 77, a main artery out of town every night.
The banks' dominance of nearly every aspect of local culture is most evident downtown -- or "Uptown," as bank boosters like to call it -- where a Jersey accent is now just as common as a Southern drawl. Most men are dressed in the unofficial bank uniform of blue shirt, no tie, dark pants, prominent belt buckle and black shoes. Many women walk from building to building in dark blue, black or gray suits.
One way to tell people apart are security badges issued by Bank of America (red and blue) and Wachovia (green and blue). They are a ubiquitous accessory on belts and lapels throughout the business district, with many employees refusing to take them off while in restaurants or lunchtime sandwich shops.
Rarely, though, will you find a lot of interbank badge mingling during the day -- the long-running rivalry between Bank of America and Wachovia and the clearly marked territory of each institution mean that employees from one bank rarely cross over to the other's turf.
"The city is owned by these banks," said Jennifer Linsenmayer, a Bank of America vice president. "The town is really split. You really do hang out on your side of the city."
Bank of America controls the north side of Downtown and Wachovia has the south, each keeping the sidewalks remarkably, almost antiseptically, clean.
The dividing line is the intersection of Tryon and Trade streets, near the site of the city's founding in 1768. Bank of America owns three of the four corners on that intersection, and it houses 13,000 in 13 buildings along North Tryon or Trade.
There is a performance arts center, a museum, a shopping center housed inside a glass atrium and a domed painting at Bank of America-owned TransAmerica Square featuring the visage of Hugh McColl, retired chief executive officer of Bank of America. Mr. McColl also is responsible for the McColl Center for Visual Art -- an empty church that reopened in 1999 as an artists incubator -- and the redevelopment of downtown's Fourth Ward, a dilapidated area the bank targeted in the 1970s with incentives to renovate vintage homes.
Another pictorial of Mr. McColl can be found above the bar at Luce, a Tryon Street restaurant connected to the Bank of America-owned Hearst Tower. The tower is an Art Deco-inspired structure that houses a 47-foot-tall, 104-foot-wide trading floor, the second-largest in the country. The airplane-hangar-size room fills up at 5:30 a.m. with row after row of traders in their 20s and 30s, all of them huddled over two or three Bloomberg terminals, cups of noodles and coffee -- enough nourishment so as not to miss a minute of market action.
When the traders -- mostly male -- step outside at the market's close, they can see where Bank of America is building a 15-floor Ritz-Carlton Hotel, one block from a new Charlotte Bobcats basketball arena. Across the street from the arena, there's a 265,000-square-foot entertainment complex that includes a movie theater, a bowling alley, nightclubs, restaurants and the city's largest condo tower at 53 stories.
Wachovia territory begins two blocks south of Trade. Wachovia is the larger employer locally -- with 19,000 workers -- and No. 1 in local market share as measured by deposits.
It has four main buildings -- appropriately named One Wachovia Center, Two Wachovia Center, Three Wachovia Center, Four Wachovia Center -- and a large grassy quad called "The Green." Across the street is the future site of a 1 million-square-foot Wachovia complex that will anchor the south end of downtown with a 40-floor office tower, a 600-unit condo tower, a park, two museums and a performing arts center. The only sign of Wachovia's rival on this side of town is the Bank of America Stadium -- home of the Carolina Panthers -- a project helped along by Mr. McColl.
Amid all the construction, older, well-preserved buildings are hard to find. "It is a very new city," said former Wachovia chief financial officer Robert Kelly, who now runs Mellon Financial Corp.
The rapid development is a marvel to longtime residents.
"A decade or two ago, after 5 o'clock downtown, there were tumbleweeds rolling up and down the street," said Tony Plath, a professor of finance at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. "Now there are restaurants, art museums, theaters" along with new people from "California and New York and Texas and Ohio. ... A lot of new money here. A lot of people became millionaires in the last 10 years."
To house all the new money, developers are racing to put up eight new condo projects in the center of the city, with some units selling for as much as $3 million. More than 10,000 people now live downtown, up from only 1,000 five years ago, and plenty of upscale eateries are trying to get in -- Ruth's Chris Steak House just announced plans for a new building next to a 13-story condominium project, the convention center and a NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Bank of America and Wachovia sponsor nearly every civic event in town, from golf tournaments to chamber events to charity drives. They both worked together to bring NBA basketball back to hoops-crazed Charlotte, resulting in the new arena for the Bobcats.
While there still is the long-held competition between the two banking titans, many of the top executives now live next door to each other in the same neighborhoods and attend the "same clubs, same parties, same everything," said former Bank of America executive Jim Hance, 61. "It's too small a town."Nell Redmond, Associated Press
The Bank of America Corporate Center towers over Charlotte, N.C.
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Christopher A. Record, Associated Press
Ed Crutchfield is the retired executive officer of Wachovia Corp.
Click photo for larger image.John Bazemore, Associated Press
Hugh McColl is the retired chief executive officer of Bank of America.
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First Published June 27, 2006 12:00 am