Post-bank crisis, Charlotte knows it will never be the same

After decades of prosperity on the coattails of its two giant banks, the Charlotte region is suffering worse than many others in the wake of the financial crisis.

An Observer review of key economic data shows that jobs, pay, housing and spending power fell more sharply than the national average and most major metro areas. And, two years after the banking meltdown, Charlotte is finding it harder to claw its way back.

By one measure, per capita income, the area ranks among hobbled metros such as Buffalo and Detroit.

Charlotte still remains attractive to businesses and newcomers. But it's clear that the crisis has prompted a massive reset, changing the way residents measure their city and themselves.

Banktown's psyche has been rattled, its bluster subdued. Few expect the region to return to the breathless growth it once experienced. Consumers have hunkered down, due to their own struggles or the anxieties that pierce the region. For many, frivolity and luxury are out; frugality and saving are in.

That's true around the country. But the setback is more pronounced here, many say, because of the city's deep dependency on the banking industry and its history of skating through past recessions.

"I think there was a sense, not just in Charlotte the city, but in the region itself, that the bubble was just going to keep growing," said James Oakley, an associate professor of marketing at UNC Charlotte who moved to the area three years ago from Indiana. "And the reason it's called 'the bubble' is that at some point, bubbles always burst."

City boosters and business leaders remain bullish on Charlotte, saying it's a resilient place that will almost surely continue to grow. Yet they agree that the region's future might look dramatically different. No longer able to lean so heavily on its banking giants for jobs, wages and confidence, the area will have to depend more on its natural assets and a network of varied companies and industries.

Belk department store chief executive Tim Belk said he's seen consumers pull back with bank layoffs, but that he's encouraged by efforts to create an energy hub and thriving health care sector. Plus, he said, Wells Fargo's purchase of Wachovia two years ago this month went more smoothly than many expected.

Despite some initial shock, the crisis "really gave people a chance to pause and reflect," he said.

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