Monday, May 11, 2009

Charlotte (literally) giving Atlanta a run for its money

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ("Covering Dixie like the dew") has a nice piece on the burgeoning rivalry between Charlotte and Atlanta as they battle to see who is the "King of the South." Clearly Atlanta has been the unofficial capital of the South for many, many years. But the Queen City is making inroads in many ways.

From his 15th floor City Hall aerie, Mayor Pat McCrory sees what Atlanta’s missing.

To his left sits the soon-to-be-completed NASCAR Hall of Fame. Straight ahead is the headquarters for GMAC Financial Services. And, running up the spine of this slim and sleek city, rolls a Euro-sleek light-rail train.

Atlanta offered big bucks for NASCAR, tried to land GMAC and has suffered a long, unrequited romance with light rail. Charlotte, like a feisty, undersized boxer, punches above its weight.

“We could’ve easily become a Knoxville, Greensboro or Richmond,” McCrory said. “Instead we compete, fortunately, with Denver, Dallas and Atlanta.”

Charlotte, the Queen City, maintains pretensions of one day surpassing Atlanta as economic King of the South. Sam Williams, head of Atlanta’s Chamber of Commerce, says dream on.

“We don’t really compete tooth-and-nail with Charlotte because the companies we go after (are) in the international trade, logistics and biomedical fields and they’re not looking to go to Charlotte,” he said. “Dallas, Tampa and northern Virginia — those are our consistent competitors.”

Williams is most likely right. However, Charlotte is closing the gap. It has better (and by better we mean less-congested) traffic, a more reliable mass transit system and -- let's be honest -- the better reputation as the safer place to live. (Though it is all relative; most North Carolinians consider Charlotte too big and too dangerous with too much traffic. Atlantans probably consider Charlotte small and backwards.)

Charlotte also has an advantage over Atlanta: the ability to watch her and see how NOT to do some things.

“We’ve had the opportunity to learn from Atlanta’s mistakes,” McCrory said in a recent interview. “We’ve seen how to grow and how not to grow. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. We’ve had the advantage of growing up second.”

And, for the foreseeable future, that’s where Charlotte will remain. With nearly three times the population and a much more diverse and global economic base, Atlanta won’t relinquish its top-dog crown anytime soon.

Charlotte will bide its time, happy with its steady rise from textile town to banking capital. It too experiences bigger-city growing pains. The recession gobsmacked the city’s financial industry. Charlotte must get its economic house in order.

But once it does …

“Clearly the gap has narrowed,” said John Connaughton, an economics professor at UNC Charlotte. “Will Atlanta always be bigger? Yes, during the lifetimes of most of the people here today. Long term? That’s anybody’s guess.”

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