Banking blues hit Charlotte

CHARLOTTE -- Business has slowed some at Lupie's Cafe, where a home-cooked Southern meal of chicken and dumplings served piping hot with a side of cornbread costs $5.35.

Lupie Duran, owner of the cafe, says her second location in suburban Huntersville, about 15 miles away, has taken an even bigger hit than the original location here.

That, she figures, is because it is in one of the places where many big homes are owned by Wachovia employees whose job security is in question in light of the financial crisis and a proposed merger with Wells Fargo Bank.

"They were already spending more than they had. You could tell," she says.

Duran, 56, hopes her affordable menu will keep her door swinging. But she and her most optimistic customers know that the world economic crisis and the banking industry issues at the center of it mean Charlotte faces an uncertain economic outlook after years of heady growth.

Charlotte, the largest city in North Carolina, saw its population swell from 541,000 in 2000 to 672,000 in mid-2007, according to Census Bureau figures this year. The city added more people in 2007 than all but eight other U.S. cities. The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce reports 7,500 companies, from Ikea to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, have added 69,000 jobs in Mecklenburg County in the past decade.

Much of the job growth has been in banking. Charlotte continues to be second only to New York City as a headquarters for U.S. banks after a month of upheaval, chamber spokeswoman Erica Johnson says.

Bank of America, a Charlotte company that had shed more than 3,000 jobs nationwide in the past year, announced in September it would take over New York's Merrill Lynch for $50 billion.

Weeks later, Wachovia — another Charlotte bank saddled with the mortgages that are the seed of the financial industry's problems — abandoned a deal with Citigroup and decided to sell itself for $15.1 billion to Wells Fargo.

No cuts have been announced for the city's 20,000 Wachovia workers or the 14,000 at Bank of America. But the possibility hovers over the city.

Potential shockwaves

Kim Elmore-Ross, a nurse, who stopped at Lupie's for takeout with her 2-year-old stepdaughter, Trinity, has started a financial class. "It's kind of scary, but I've got to learn to budget," she says.

For every 1,000 banking jobs Charlotte loses, it stands to lose an additional 400 in other fields from real estate to accounting, says Harrison Campbell, a professor of economic geography at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

Elmore-Ross says she expects her job at a hospital and her husband's with city government to remain stable.

"I think the city's still going to grow despite all that," she says.

That's the message local leaders are sending.

"We might get hit in the gut a few times, but we always get right back up and move forward," says Pat McCrory, the Republican mayor running for governor.

McCrory and Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess, a Democrat, both stress what they call a diverse economy that goes well beyond banking.

Burgess says the city has $1 billion worth of building projects. She points out the window of her uptown office to a panorama of construction cranes.

There are 28 swinging away, she says, pointing to projects including Wachovia's new tower; an African American cultural center; the EpiCentre, home to new nightclubs and restaurants; and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, paid for with a hotel-tax hike by city leaders eager to capitalize on the sport's growth.

As those projects proceed, another, The Park condo development, has shut down. Foreclosure proceedings began on the property this year.

Troubling signs

The county's residential building permits dropped 42% in the first half of the year, according to the Market Edge, a Knoxville, Tenn., construction research company.

Homebuilding has declined, Campbell says, but Charlotte didn't benefit as much as some places from the big surge in real estate prices, so it is less likely to be hurt by a dramatic decline.

An economic index published by Campbell that projects the city's economic growth in six to nine months was down 2% in July, the most recent month studied.

Seventy businesses in Mecklenburg County have reported either layoffs or a closing this year, according to a state Employment Security Commission database, the most since 2003.

Aaron Vance sees worse coming.

In Charlotte, Vance's home until September, he managed salespeople for a fleet-management company. Not long after about half of his staff was downsized amid the region's gas shortage, he took a new job and moved his family to Washington.

Vance, 44, says that over three months, he saw a dozen homes in foreclosure in his upscale neighborhood in Charlotte.

Five neighbors left "like the mob had moved in next door," he says.

"With no jobs, no prospects of jobs and everybody leaving, it wasn't a place (to be) if you're wanting to be upwardly mobile," he says.

Schrader reports for the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times.