Pittsburgh expatriates miss city but say they can make a better living in Charlotte
Share with others:
Marty Price/Special to the Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh ex-pats James and Jennifer Linsenmayer -- He's a licensed financial specialist with Wachovia; she's a vice president of consumer and small business marketing communications with Bank of America.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When Matrika Sisca moved here in 1999, the University of Pittsburgh graduate was 24, had $1,000 in her pocket and had never been to Charlotte before.
She calls it the bravest decision of her young life.
"I didn't have a job, I had no money saved, I really had nothing lined up," said Ms. Sisca, who struggled to find work in Pittsburgh after graduation. "I just said, 'You know what? I am going to take a chance.' ... There was so much opportunity here, it was amazing."
Ms. Sisca, now 31 and a vice president with Bank of America, is among the thousands of ex-Pittsburghers to migrate here over the last two decades. As Charlotte's major banks swallowed dozens of rivals around the country, they have fueled this region's economic boom, transforming this textile-and-tobacco town into the nation's second-largest banking center, a place where one out of five workers has a finance job of some kind.
The growth has brought with it some concerns that the region may be relying too much on one industry, a concern that came to fruition in Pittsburgh two decades ago as Big Steel became little steel. It's true that Charlotte remains one of the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan areas, adding finance jobs at a rate faster than the national average. But it's not like it was in the 1980s and 1990s.
There are concerns about layoffs -- Bank of America and Wachovia Corp. have been cutting thousands of jobs nationwide, including some in Charlotte, even as they add thousands more. And there is the ever-present fear that industry consolidation could claim one of the two hometown giants, or that one or both could decide to move a headquarters elsewhere, costing the region thousands of jobs, not to mention prestige.
But those seem like worries in search of a problem to the many ex-Pittsburghers in Charlotte. Like Ms. Sisca, they moved here seeking a job, perhaps more money and a sunnier climate -- a combination not always available to them back home.
Take former Pittsburgher Linda Gregory, a Bank of America business analyst, for example. She moved to Charlotte in January 2005 because she came to the conclusion that there were "no jobs up there [in Pittsburgh]." While Ms. Gregory is still fond of Pittsburgh, she "would never consider moving north" again.
Charlotte "is a boom town," said Dan Medvid, a Bank of America employee who grew up in the South Hills and moved to Charlotte in the 1980s. "There is no reason to be unemployed in this city. If you are young and talented, somebody will hire you. I have been laid off twice and never been unemployed."
Anecdotal evidence of Pittsburgh is everywhere in this metropolitan area of 1.5 million people.
The number of Steelers bars (at least nine); the 10-year-old networking club known as the Charlotte Steel City Fanatics; the number of cars on the morning commute bearing Steelers or Pitt Panthers license plates (Mr. Medvid of Bank of America counted seven on a recent 20-minute drive into work); and the number of Pittsburghers who show up to pray on Sundays (Mr. Medvid says 10 Pittsburgh families belong to his neighborhood Greek Orthodox church).
While no one knows exactly how many ex-Pittsburghers now live here, from 1995 to 2000 there was a migration of 1,571 people from Pittsburgh's Allegheny County to Charlotte's Mecklenberg County -- the two largest counties in each metro area -- according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Mecklenberg was the sixth-highest draw for people leaving Allegheny County during the latter half of the 1990s, not counting other parts of Western Pennsylvania.
That trend continued into this decade. Between July 1, 2003 and July 1, 2004, for example, 400 people left the Pittsburgh metro area for Charlotte, while 114 did the reverse -- a net loss of 286 residents. For the year, Charlotte was the sixth-highest draw for ex-Pittsburghers among U.S. metro areas. Retirement haven Tampa-St. Petersburg was first, taking 545 people, followed by Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Orlando, Fla.; and Phoenix.
Younger people are moving to Charlotte not just from Pittsburgh but from all over the country. From 1995 to 2000, the Charlotte metro area had the third-highest attraction rate among people who were single, between the ages of 25 and 39 and had at least a bachelor's degree-- gaining 10,091 such people during that period (the Pittsburgh area lost 7,444 such people during the same years). The only metro areas with a higher migration rate among the young, single and well educated were Naples, Fla., and Las Vegas.
One of the few to make the reverse trip from Charlotte to Pittsburgh in recent years was new Mellon Financial Corp. Chief Executive Officer Bob Kelly, who left his old job as Wachovia chief financial officer in February and recently purchased a house in Sewickley. He calls Charlotte "essentially a new city" and notes that the rapid growth has "upsides and downsides."
While he believes that Charlotte is "emerging as a wonderfully cosmopolitan city," he said, "It doesn't yet have the degree of cultural advantages that a Pittsburgh does." The art galleries are "not as established and large," he noted, though Wachovia is working on a new downtown arts museum that will house works by Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Georges Braque and Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol -- the structure designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta.
If there is a regret among Pittsburghers now stationed here, it is the soul and culture of the city they left behind.
The first time 30-year-old Jennifer Linsenmayer and her husband James, 35, moved to Charlotte, Mrs. Linsenmayer moved back after nine months. "I hated it," she said. "I hated the people, I hated where we were living. It seemed like this big party town."
But Mrs. Linsenmayer, originally from McCandless, could not find a job in Pittsburgh that paid enough. When she came back to Charlotte in 2001 for a job at Bank of America, her salary almost doubled to $45,000.
Her husband landed a job at crosstown rival Wachovia as a licensed financial specialist, and they built a 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom home in suburban Charlotte for $192,000. Today, that same house is appraised at $280,000 -- the sort of rapid appreciation that would be difficult to find in slow-growing Pittsburgh.
She knows how intoxicating the new wealth of Charlotte can be. The first difference Mrs. Linsenmayer noticed after leaving Pittsburgh were the cars.
"In Pittsburgh you see a lot of Pontiacs and Lincolns," she said. "Here, you will see a lot of BMWs, lots of Mercedeses, quite a bit of Audis and a few Ferraris and Bentleys." The city "is very big into status."
On a recent evening after work, Mrs. Linsenmayer met downtown for drinks with several other ex-Pittsburghers who now work for Bank of America: Austin Vanassa, 23; and Jeremy Smith and Jesse Spain, both 25.
Mr. Smith, a Bank of America investment specialist, described how he spotted several Maseratis in the grocery store parking lot recently, and he and his friends agreed that such cars were probably the property of Charlotte's young, newly wealthy bankers.
"That's all the city is about -- bankers," said Mr. Spain, who is from Economy.
Mrs. Linsenmayer, who has a new baby daughter, said she was happy but laments the focus in Charlotte "on work and on fun and not so much on family. ... We are here because of the opportunities, but we desperately miss the culture Pittsburgh gives us. There are some cool things in Charlotte, but it is just not home."
Charlotte is "where my life lives, and Pittsburgh is where my heart lives."Nell Redmond, Associated Press
The Bank of America Corporate Center towers over Charlotte, N.C.
Click photo for larger image.
Day One: How Charlotte became a banking giant, outpacing Pittsburgh's banks (06/26/06)
Day Two: As steel shaped Pittsburgh, banking defines Charlotte (06/27/06)
First Published June 28, 2006 12:00 am