As the economy teeters and many Charlotteans worry about whether they'll be employed next week, the shiny shoes crowd is contemplating the mother of all spending binges.
They're keeping it largely on the down low for now, until the election is over. Then they plan to wallop taxpayers with a list of Uptown development projects that comes with an ungodly tab of about $1.2 billion -- yes, that's with a "B."
There's the Uptown streetcar, which will roll in at $400 million or more. Then there's the Lake Norman light rail line, which will cost about the same and the $300 million "cap" of Interstate 277 to create a "central celebration area" complete with hotels and retail. Throw in tens of millions more for a total redo of the Eastland Mall area and you've blown well past the billion-dollar mark. And that's just the stuff that property taxpayers will be on the hook for. Another billion will go for a light rail line from the University area to Uptown, most of that hopefully paid for with federal dollars and the proceeds of the half cent sales tax.
These projects all have a couple of things in common. The ultimate purpose of each one is to generate dense residential development along designated corridors, and to channel the city's growth along these corridors. They are all based around one central assumption: there will be high paying jobs people will need to commute to in Charlotte's Uptown. These projects theoretically will be paid for by taxes generated by residential developments along these corridors that house those who work Uptown.
We're not just blowing massive property tax resources on these assumptions, but about 60 percent of our transportation dollars as well. That's a bit of a risky proposition when you consider that our Uptown is anchored by banks at a time when the banking industry is highly volatile and banks swallow other banks over a weekend and shift headquarters within a year. Think about what happens when a strip mall's anchor tenant pulls up stakes and walks away and you get the picture.
We're building a center city for the future on a banking industry model of stability that died in the 1980s.
Of the 58,000 jobs in the Uptown zip code in 2007, 16,305 were in finance, insurance and real estate. In other words, many are bank jobs or jobs dependent on banks. Another 24,706 are service jobs, the bulk of which are white collar, according to the Charlotte Chamber. How many of those are bank-dependent is unclear.
While the impact of bank job losses resulting from Wells Fargo's purchase of Wachovia on the Charlotte economy has been the subject of much public analysis, no one is talking about how they will hit the Uptown economy. And that's really the key question.
The Uptown crowd is already lulling itself back to sleep with the idea that Wells Fargo is going to grow the job base here as it has elsewhere after a takeover, never mind that the jobs we'll lose permanently are the ones Uptown is dependent on. Meanwhile, Charlotte-centric Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis faces mandatory retirement in four years. Many of those jockeying for his job aren't from around these parts. Then again, there's no telling whether Bank of America will even be around in its current form four years from now, or whether the new form it could take on at any moment will include a headquarters here with thousands of jobs Uptown.
The idea that these two bank entities will still anchor Uptown 15 years from now is laughable and would require nothing short of a minor miracle. Yet we plan to blow billions on a bank-based Uptown model.
I wonder if anyone has a contingency plan for a bank-lite or bank-free Uptown. I only ask because we have half-completed condo developments rusting in the sun while we plan to pay for the street car with taxes on ... new condo developments we assume will crop up along the streetcar line. If you can't sell condos in Uptown now, how will you sell them along a new light rail line to the University area?
The purpose of locating a business Uptown right now would be to serve the banks or those who work in them. If that's gone, will businesses be willing to locate Uptown for ... the view and the ambience?
Can Uptown thrive without anchor tenants? What would it take to get new ones? Does anyone know? Care?
What exactly would the Uptown job base look like without the banks or with a dramatically reduced bank presence? What would that do to the Uptown residential market?
I'm not suggesting we abandon Uptown. Far from it. It just makes me nervous that no one seems to know the answers to these questions, or if they do, to be willing to discuss them publicly. We will have to answer these questions in the coming years. It would be wiser to do it before we blow hundreds of millions of dollars.