Charlotte is often criticized as a vanilla city, lacking in culture and sense of place. We’re a city that tears down historic buildings and loves chain restaurants.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s the equivalent of criticizing a high schooler for not having a career picked out yet. Charlotte is still new to the national stage, an awkward teenager looking up to big brothers like Atlanta, Boston, or Philadelphia.
But with another major political convention coming to town, Charlotte has a chance to edit its own story, to create a narrative that the world will see.
This is more than just an idle exercise. Identities are crucial to recruiting new companies and jobs. They’re both a marketing tool and a rallying cry.
Charlotte doesn’t have a true identity today, and it’s hurting our progress. But that doesn’t mean we can’t develop one.
Here are five ideas for identities that would be a natural fit for Charlotte with just a little bit of effort — and one that might develop if we’re not careful.
1) Wall Street South
Charlotte already kind of has this reputation, but we’d need to lean into it.
Our city is home to the headquarters of Bank of America, the largest employee hub of Wells Fargo, several regional bank offices, numerous boutique investment banks — and tens of thousands of finance workers that come with them. Legendary former Observer banking reporter Rick Rothacker dubbed the city “Banktown” in his excellent book chronicling our big banks’ development.
But ever since the financial crisis, Charlotte has tried to back away from this identity.
Not coincidentally, Charlotte’s influence as a banking center has diminished in that time period. We’ve fallen behind San Francisco for second place in banking centers by assets. Bank of America is mostly run out of Boston and New York. Our regional and local banks have been gobbled up by out-of-town buyers. And investment company AllianceBernstein passed on Charlotte for a new headquarters — choosing Nashville instead.
The easiest way for Charlotte to find an identity would be to unapologetically reclaim the mantle of Wall Street South. Put it on a marketing flyer, a logo — heck, even an apartment complex. Maybe rename an Uptown street.
Make sure that no bank worth its salt is able to ignore Charlotte.
2) Hospitality City
Chalk this up in the “almost there” category as well. Charlotte greets visitors with rocking chairs in our international airport, making them world-famous. That airport is the sixth-busiest in the world, by the way.
We’ve got a robust Airbnb community, which Charlotte would need to embrace rather than over-regulate. Charlotte has a growing reputation as a great convention city, owing in part to our lack of distractions. And the restaurant scene is booming.
Uptown is teeming with new hotels, and our City Council is now considering putting up some public financing to build a 1,000+ room hotel, which would be the city’s largest to date. That would be a good first step.
In Hawaii, you get a lei as soon as you walk off the plane. Let’s give everybody who shows up in Charlotte a bathrobe and some slippers, at least metaphorically speaking, and make Charlotte the most hospitable city in the world.
3) Back Office of America
Professional services are the largest chunk of Charlotte’s economy. We’re really good at entry-level white-collar jobs, and we have the cost of living (for now) and the labor pool to do them.
Bank of America hosts its technology and operations business here. Wells Fargo has massive customer service centers in University City. Red Ventures got its start with call centers and is our region’s brightest unicorn. AvidXChange masters unsexy but vital business tasks.
Right now, Charlotte ordinances make it very difficult to locate any sort of call center-style apparatus in the city. We’d need to fix that, but such things are fairly easy.
“Onshoring” is still en vogue in Corporate America. Why let Jacksonville get all the glory?
4) Media Capital of the South
New York City is the media hub of the world. But it’s expensive to be there, and our media world is already in enough of a Northeastern bubble as it is.
As the home to CNN, Atlanta arguably holds the mantle of media capital of the South today. But this feels within reach.
Charlotte is already home to the American City Business Journals headquarters, a huge hub of U.S. operations of Perform Media, a growing digital presence from TEGNA and numerous uber-talented video production firms like Wheelhouse Media.
Throw in media services firms and ad agencies like Wray Ward, BooneOakley and Mythic and you have the makings of something.
There are benefits to having Charlotte’s skyline as the backdrop for all manner of productions. Let’s subsidize more film projects, leverage Queens University of Charlotte’s communications school and experiment with different media models. Let’s create the coverage of ourselves rather than let the outside world dictate what we are.
How would that be for an identity?
5) Mobility City
Charlotte’s infrastructure is undeniably centered around the car. But there’s growing interest in other forms of transit, and our city has enough empty space to try a few things.
Charlotteans have already indicated that they love the new electric scooters taking over the center city. While other cities are freaking out about how to hyper-regulate and crush these companies, Charlotte could take a different approach. We could be pioneers in reshaping our city around these new, cleaner methods of mobility.
Let’s shut down roads to cars and make them scooter- and bike-only. Let’s subsidize scooter passes like we do bus passes. Let’s hire ambassadors to scoot up and down the street helping people get started.
6) Inequality Capital of America
This is where Charlotte could be headed if we’re not careful. A few years back, we got news that Mecklenburg County ranked 50 out of 50 major metro areas in terms of economic mobility, or the likelihood of somebody born poor to reach the middle class.
Our neighborhoods are still overwhelmingly segregated by income and race. The economy is booming for people with higher education, but jobs and opportunities for other people are hard to come by.
Charlotte leaders have been slow to come up with strategies to fix things. Let’s hope we move in the other direction soon enough to avoid this fate.