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Goodbye Banktown - Hello Community

by Decker Ngongang

November 8,2009

Bye-bye banks – welcome to the new Charlotte.

The departure of Ken Lewis and the change in the banks is a necessary exercise for the authentic growth of our city. I grew up in the shadow of the banks downtown. I remember being a 3rd grader at Irwin Avenue Elementary, walking through downtown to Discovery Place and stopping by the huge hole in the ground that would one day hold the Bank of America Corporate center tower.

I grew up in a city that prized our status as the home of two of the world’s largest financial institutions. We channeled much of our progress through the banks, with the super-broker Hugh McColl advancing the arts communities, many of our bankers championing education issues and our city council, school board and county commissioners finding some connection to the banking and business establishment.

Many small businesses were born from the emergence of these banks and found opportunities for funding or through private investment from the many millionaires that the financial institutions created in the city. It is arguable that the YMCA system, which is one of the best in the country, wouldn’t be what it is without the thousands of employees from the banks who spread across the city and enjoyed the ease of working out at the same place their kids played soccer or basketball.

I could go on touting the benefits we have enjoyed or the growth that has been spurred by the existence of the banks in our city. As Charlotte stands injured by the dismantling of Wachovia and the federal and public dressing down of Bank of America, we must stop harping over the injury and move on. We must recognize that the existence of these institutions in our midst was a blessing and a curse. We became dependent on their affluence and mystique, while seemingly devaluing the human spirit that was the real driving force behind our community.

Much of our nation’s problems with Wall Street and our financial institutions are rooted in the way we deferred a value of humanity to a love of profit and material success. People became victims or beneficiaries of interest rates. We sacrificed logic and accountability for profit and capital success. Let’s take this as an opportunity to prove that underneath the charisma of these banks that contributed a great deal to the Charlotte identity, there is a body of people who are diverse, intentional and ready to establish a culture for the city of Charlotte. Hopefully, that culture will be rooted in our citizens, not in any one institution or industry.

It’s not fair for Charlotte to heap the pressure of its collective success on two financial institutions. We must create an identity that our institutions can complement, not just support. There is a culture shift afoot in our community’s corporate infrastructure and we must trickle down this shift in culture to our other businesses and civic institutions. The value of board membership and contribution to organizations and community service can’t be rooted primarily in your affiliation with a business. We must cash in on the hard work we have done to develop a community with such educational diversity and the inherent creativity to thrive in these challenging times, creating a city that can in turn create its own identity.

We built a city on the access of having these world-class financial institutions in our midst. We packed our boards with their executives because of their capital and clout and now many of us are sitting bewildered at what to do. We must move on – and grow.

Perhaps we can use this to our advantage. We should use the corporate backbone of our community as an opportunity to build a new sense of what and who Charlotte is and what really supports our success – the people.

Detroit has done this, along with Pittsburg and even New York; they are all doing some soul searching on creating new identities. This is our new challenge for Charlotte: not to replace a banking culture with a new corporate culture, but to redefine our community in an intentional and authentic way by tapping into the intellect, creativity, ingenuity and passion of the people we have here.

Charlotte will be alright…because it has to be.

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