CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When Charlotte emerged as a major banking center in the 1990s, it looked like the good times would never end.
Gleaming skyscrapers sprang up. The city landed NFL and NBA teams. Mansions were built. And Charlotte's business leaders gave back to a city that had long prided itself on civic pride and forward-thinking, helping to open arts centers and museums.
But when Charlotte's banks fell on hard times, so did Charlotte — mirroring the situation nationwide. Now business and political leaders working to revive the city are eager to showcase what it has to offer when Democrats arrive for their national convention in 2012.
City leaders believe they are on the cusp of a comeback from a recession that sapped the region of thousands of high-paying white-collar jobs and fueled racial tensions as cash-strapped schools cut teachers and programs.
"When it comes to solving problems, we always come together," said Cam Harris, a local businessman. "That's our history."
The Democratic National Committee announced the selection of Charlotte on Tuesday for its 2012 convention, rejecting bids by a trio of Midwestern cities hit hard by the recession — Cleveland, Minneapolis, and St. Louis — in favor of the more economically stable North Carolina.
President Barack Obama's selection of this Southern city of more than 760,000 signals he will try to reassemble his diverse coalition of 2008 supporters and fight for the conservative-leaning states that helped him win the White House.
With the economy certain to dominate Obama's re-election bid, North Carolina's long-term industrial transformation — from tobacco, textiles and furniture to research, energy and banking — also plays into what might be the centerpiece of the incumbent's campaign, a call for America to focus on innovation to compete in the changing global marketplace.
"We think Charlotte and North Carolina have a good economic story to tell," DNC chairman Tim Kaine, a former Virginia governor, told The Associated Press. "It's really recalibrated its economy over the past few years."
In 2008, Obama became the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to win North Carolina in a presidential race, boosted by a large jump in black voter participation. A flood of new residents over the past decade and a rising crop of independent voters also have made the state, once solidly in the GOP column for presidential elections, far more competitive.
"We used Denver to organize and energize voters," Kaine said of the party's 2008 convention city. "We're going to do the same thing here in 2012."
Located about 250 miles northeast of Atlanta, Charlotte has long straddled the line between New South and Bible Belt. Residents call their downtown "uptown," travel on a major thoroughfare named after evangelist Billy Graham and flock to NASCAR races in nearby Concord.
Charlotte grew as mega-banks Wachovia and Bank of America headquartered there, turning the city into the nation's second-largest banking center, and USAirways put a hub at the airport.
Together, the two banking giants employed tens of thousands in the city alone. The companies built skyscrapers and sponsored cultural and community events, and gave millions to charities. New subdivisions and gated communities with expensive homes were built in the city and suburbs.
But with the nation's banking meltdown, Charlotte lost thousands of those good-paying financial services jobs. Wachovia nearly collapsed at the height of the financial crisis in 2008 before it was purchased by Wells Fargo & Co. Bank of America — most notably its former president and CEO Ken Lewis — came under fire for its purchase of Countrywide and Merrill Lynch. With his company facing staggering losses, Lewis resigned in 2009.
For years, construction cranes symbolized the city's explosive growth. Now, many of the downtown projects have stalled and the school district is facing serious financial problems.
The troubles have even led to racial tensions in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, long seen as a model of school integration. Seven civil rights complaints have been filed with the federal Department of Education over a recent decision to close 10 schools, a decision the complainants argue targets predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods.
Such battles aside, experts say the 2012 Democratic convention represents an opportunity for Charlotte to show off its business community, among other things.
Anthony Plath, an associate professor of finance at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, said the nationally televised event will give the city the chance to demonstrate that "Charlotte is about business."
"America needs to be more about business. That's where the jobs come from. I'm sure that's why the DNC picked Charlotte," Plath said.
Charlotte has a story to tell: While the banking industry took a hit, other industries — such as power and technology and engineering — stepped up and filled some of the void, Plath said.
NBA great Michael Jordan co-owns the Charlotte Bobcats, a franchise the city secured after building a new downtown area following the move of the Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans after just 14 years.
Still, Charlotte has a long way to recover.
"It's not just the number of jobs. It's the kind of jobs the city has lost," Plath said. "It's the investment-banking jobs. Remember, those jobs pay about $500,000 a year — that's like losing 10 middle-class people."
Harris said Charlotte has a long history of bouncing back and "reinventing itself."
"At one time we had textiles. And when that basically went away, we had banking and put everyone to work again," he said. "That's the kind of spirit we have in Charlotte. We have a new economy here with energy. We have Duke Energy, which is one of the most innovative electric companies." (Duke CEO Jim Rogers co-chaired the committee that lobbied for the convention.)
In announcing the convention, Mayor Anthony Foxx said the city is on the verge of a revival, and he credited the victory in part to the city's "can-do spirit" in the face of serious economic problems.
"Thanks to the hard work and support of so many throughout our community, we have an unmatched opportunity to show the world what a beautiful, energetic, innovative and diverse city we are building in Charlotte," Foxx said.
Rogers predicted the convention will provide a boost for the city.
"You know what I love most about this, Charlotte and North Carolina, we're getting our mojo back," said Rogers. He said he will be responsible for raising money for the convention — between $40 million and $50 million.
Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Hannon said the city has serious problems, but nothing it can't fix.
"In the midst of what some may perceive to be a teardown, Charlotte always maintained its foundation," he said.
At the core of that foundation are community and business leaders who aren't afraid to get involved in social issues. He noted that Charlotte business leaders and philanthropy groups this week pledged to spend $55 million to improve eight struggling schools in the Queen City.
"That's what I mean by mobilizing. Coming together. You know, we've been knocked down, but when you have everyone working together, you can get back up," he said.
Associated Press writer Tom Foreman Jr. contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.
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