About Charlotte

by Aurelie Thiele on November 13th, 2011
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The INFORMS conference is now in full swing and it has been wonderful to see so many familiar faces – and many more new ones as well. For my first post, I decided to write about our host city: Charlotte, NC. Because of Charlotte’s recent ascent – and struggle – as a financial center and renewed renaissance as a hub for energy companies, and because both finance and energy are themes of interest to many operations research practitioners, I hope learning a bit more about Charlotte will be of interest to many.

First, the basics, thanks to Wikipedia: Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina and the seat of Mecklenburg County. With a population over 730,000 in the latest US census, it is the 17th largest American city in population.  (The metropolitan area counts about 1.75 million residents.) Charlotte is viewed as a major financial center because Bank of America is headquartered there; Wachovia also had its headquarters in Charlotte before its demise during the financial crisis and merger with Wells Fargo (which is said to bring its headquarters of East Coast Operations to Charlotte). Charlotte is also the home of the Carolina Panthers (NFL), the Charlotte Bobcats (NBA) and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Charlotte was ranked No 8 in the 2008 rankings of “Best cities to live and launch” compiled by Money Magazine. The pros included “Steady influx of young educated workers, business-friendly banking community, local sports entertainment”, as well as the proximity of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte campus, while the main con was the increase in housing costs due to the influx of new residents. (Charlotte’s fortune as a banking center originated in new laws passed in the 1980s lifting restrictions about banks operating in multiple states, which explains it only rose to prominence relatively recently. For an article explaining Charlotte’s trajectory, I recommend the article “How Charlotte became a banking giant, outpacing Pittsburgh’s banks” in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 2006.)

The appeal of Charlotte – a vibrant city that is also an airline hub in a sunny climate with great opportunities both job-wise and leisure-wise – has also brought its share of challenges during the economic crisis. Many people moved to Charlotte in the hope to find a job but were unable to gain employment, leading to an unemployment rate of 12% in 2009, according to this Washington Post article.  I find it striking that in 2008 Money magazine put Charlotte’s population at just below 600,000, and only 2 years later the population had increased by over 20%. Such an increase would be difficult to absorb seamlessly in the best of situations, and the financial crisis certainly did not help.

The Washington Post article “Hard times in Charlotte, a city depending on the banking industry”, published in October 2009, paints a rather sad picture of Charlotte at the time, and its high hopes of becoming a national powerhouse dashed by the economy. For instance: “In Charlotte, the number of people served by the soup kitchen at Urban Ministry, a local charity, has increased 22 percent since August 2007, while the number of private airplanes arriving and departing from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport has dropped by 38 percent.”

Even in 2009, many people remained optimistic about the future of Charlotte. “This is a great city with a deep talent pool”, said the CEO of GMAC Financial. Also, the journalist wrote: “Some local leaders have suggested that Charlotte diversify its economy. But it is much more common to find people who say the city’s destiny as a financial center has simply been postponed.”

Two years later, we can better judge the future of Charlotte, and it is looking up. In fact, in September the Washington Post published another article about Charlotte, this one entitled: “Charlotte looks beyond financial sector in effort to become energy capital.” It starts as follows: ”

By the end of this year, a tower built as a home for Wachovia will be the new headquarters of Duke Energy… While the tidy North Carolina city of 730,000 people still counts itself as the nation’s No. 2 financial center and is looking to expand in a number of arenas — including health, motor sports and defense — the area’s energy sector is showing particular promise.” Charlotte has ambitious plans, in areas that should be of interest to many operations researchers: “In addition to luring energy firms, the city is expanding recycling, “smart” grid projects and public transit, with plans to add 10 miles of light rail and a commuter line in years to come.” Leaders in the Charlotte community also aim at making the city “the most energy-efficient in the world.” The article also provides a long list of energy-related companies adding jobs to the area, from Siemens to ABB Group to Celgard and SPX. The renewed ascent of Charlotte as a national economic powerhouse should be fascinating to watch!

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