Obama Visit Comes As Charlotte Tries To Rebound

Pick an industry that is really struggling right now, and Charlotte has it: banking, commercial lending, law firms that support those industries, home construction, heavy manufacturing. But the president will touch on a bright spot during his visit Friday: a company that makes parts for electric cars.

When President Obama visits Charlotte, N.C., on Friday, he plans to talk about the economy. Three years ago, that would have been a cheery conversation, but the economic news from Charlotte is less rosy today.

The president is going to Charlotte at an uneasy time.

"With library closings, teachers being laid off and budget cuts, we are definitely at a crossroads," said slam poet Quentin Talley.

Talley was speaking at the kind of meeting that Charlotte residents aren't used to having: a community session organized after the county government announced it will be $85 million short next year.

Half of Charlotte's libraries may close. Hundreds of teachers could lose their jobs. The county's budget director, Hyong Yi, paints a bleak picture.

"We cannot afford the government that we have. We cannot afford the services that we have," Yi said. "The tax base isn't there. And we don't see things getting better for two to five years."

Leaving the meeting, lifelong Charlotte resident Bob Brown seemed dazed.

"I never expected it, because I always thought it would keep growing and growing and improving, but this is a real setback," he said.

Pam Johnson is one of hundreds of thousands of people drawn to Charlotte's powerful finance sector over the years

"Everything just seemed a lot bigger and glossier a couple of years ago than it does right now," she said. "It's just sort of heartbreaking."

Bank of America is headquartered in Charlotte. Wachovia was, too — until the crisis forced it to merge with Wells Fargo. Charlotte has lost 10,000 financial services jobs in just two years. That has been a blow to the city's pride, and to its bottom line.

"This recession seems to have really hurt us in all of our most vulnerable parts," said Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo.

Pick an industry that is really struggling right now, he said, and Charlotte has it: banking, commercial lending, law firms that support those industries, home construction, heavy manufacturing.

And it's not really the case that those industries are hurting more in Charlotte than anywhere else in the country.

Charlotte "was a little loftier at the height of the boom," Vitner said, which gave the city farther to fall.

As recently as 2007, Charlotte's unemployment rate was 4.5 percent. Now it's pushing 13 percent — one the highest among major metro areas in the country.

But President Obama has chosen one of Charlotte's few bright spots as the site for his visit: a company called Celgard, which makes components for batteries that power electric cars. Celgard got a $49 million federal stimulus grant to expand and create about 300 jobs.

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx is eager to see new sectors grow, as a counterbalance to the big banks.

"We will continue being a strong financial services center. We'll continue being a good manufacturing and distribution center," he said. "But we will also do what previous generations of Charlotteans have always done, which is to figure out where the economy is going and find a way to be relevant to it."

Right now, that means boosting the city's credibility as a hub for energy companies like Celgard. The president's visit may help that effort.

What it won't do is ease the rising burden of unemployment at places like Charlotte's Crisis Assistance Ministry, where hundreds of people line up everyday to get help paying their rent and utility bills.

"I talked with your landlord this morning. We'll send $500 so you can move back in," a counselor told one visitor.

In two years, the number of people seeking help has doubled. And many of them say they never imagined they'd be in a situation to ask for this kind of help. But then, few people ever thought Charlotte would be in this situation, either. Copyright 2010 WFAE-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wfae.org.

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