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A 12-step program for Uptown

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Any day now, the ax will fall.

The first wave of job cuts has already come. It will be followed by the second, third and fourth waves as Charlotte's banks shed thousands of high-paying jobs and the hundreds of businesses that serve them follow their lead. This will hurt Charlotte, but it could devastate Uptown.

At present, all the right people are pretending that this isn't so. They are hinging their plans to pay for another light rail line on new development in Uptown, as if this development is actually coming.

A tax on this new development is going to pay for it all, they say. Just one problem. You can't sell a condo Uptown right now. There are year-old condo developments in the center city that are downright creepy, because they are half full. People who put deposits on unbuilt condos two years ago can't sell the finished product now for $20,000 less than they paid, so they are scrambling to find renters.

The story of the pain this is causing hundreds of small investors has yet to fully break the surface in the local media. From what I've seen, I don't think it is much of a stretch to say that the Uptown condo market could take upwards of a decade to fully straighten itself out.

In a recent column in The Charlotte Observer, business writer Doug Smith dropped another bombshell.

"Bank of America has denied it many times, but some of the city's most astute decision makers still believe the bank's headquarters eventually will end up in New York City," Smith wrote in a sentence buried mid-column.

That's only part of the problem. As Smith casually pointed out elsewhere in the column, "the bank brass were able to fill the towers by pulling in law firms and other companies that cherished their business."

The banks are the glue that holds Uptown together. As the banks go, so goes Uptown. Why pay Uptown office rental rates if you aren't looking to curry favor with the banks? Why go through the hassle of battling traffic or a light rail ride to get there?

When GMAC, which is looking to remake itself as a bank, recently announced it was moving its headquarters here, the company said it was locating not to Uptown, but to the Ballantyne area. Makes sense to me.

The talk around here is of a post-bank city, and how Charlotte will have to recruit other sectors to thrive.

Yet when it comes to Uptown, we continue to plan as if it is 1999, as if nothing has changed, as if nothing ever will. It's a level of denial rarely seen outside the walls of a methadone clinic.

In Charlotte, all roads, and trains, lead to Uptown. We've poured upwards of $2 billion in amenities into the center city in the last decade, and are preparing to double that in the next few years.

The money we plan to blow on a streetcar, new billion-dollar rail line and other development will make Charlotte a pricier place to live, because taxes will have to go up substantially to pay for it. That in turn will make it harder to recruit business here.

So before we go on the mother of all spending sprees, can't we at least take a breather to see what bank leaders do and how many jobs are shed Uptown over the next two years?

A two-year delay won't break the city. I'm not suggesting the Center City crowd abandon their plans, either. We just need a cooling-off period for our charred checkbook.

If someone had predicted even two years ago that Wachovia would be toast by now, people would have thought they were nuts. So maybe we should hire a consultant to study what sort of presence the banks will have Uptown in a decade. Ten years is now an eternity in the banking world.

That's the danger of continuing to build Uptown for and around an industry as volatile as banking. If the banks dramatically reduce their job count Uptown, who will live and work there? Could we recruit a whole new business sector not just to Charlotte, but to Uptown? What would that take?

Or should Uptown's next incarnation be as a college hub or entertainment district?

I've yet to hear anyone debate this publicly. I'm not even sure who should do the debating. But I know one thing for certain: We should start now.

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