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Rainmaker to the Powerful

The new and improved Michael Marsicano

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For a while, it seemed as if Michael Marsicano had fallen off the face of the earth. In 1999, the nationally celebrated arts fundraising dynamo took a final bow at the Arts & Science Council to thunderous applause from the city's beautiful people. Marsicano then packed up his things and moved to the top desk at the Foundation for the Carolinas, a regional non-profit known for its work with the poor. For six long years, we heard barely a peep out of the man who was once a lightning rod for controversy. You'd see the occasional news announcement about the foundation's fundraising shattering new records with double-digit increases, but otherwise all was quiet. Or so it seemed on the surface.

Then one day in March, the doors of the foundation's building on South Tryon Street opened for a very important press conference. All the right people were on hand to announce that the banks had donated $500,000 for a committee to study what was wrong with our schools. The foundation in general and Marsicano in particular would be facilitating the meetings, which would, of course, be held behind closed doors at the foundation and co-chaired by foundation board member Harvey Gantt.

Years from now, those in the know may look back on that day in March as the beginning of a new era. So far, though, most people haven't connected the dots.

If they did, they'd see that Marsicano has been carefully positioning the foundation to be far more than a big bucks regional charity dedicated to wiping runny noses. In recent years, the foundation has muscled its way into the power circle of the Charlotte Chamber and the Charlotte Center City Partners. The big players have always done the charity thing with the foundation. The difference now is that the foundation is becoming a big player too.

These days, the foundation swaps board members back and forth with the Chamber and the CCCP like a game of musical chairs. Representatives from the Charlotte Observer, Bank of America, Wachovia, Duke and a host of other behind the scenes elites dominate all three boards. Foundation insiders politely refer to their new function as that of a "civic switchboard" that brings people together.

Civic switchboard, my rear-end. What is going on here is nothing less than a consolidation of high-impact projects under Marsicano's careful management. Not that I'm complaining. It's about time someone got their act together around here.

The evidence is abundant. It seems that just about every big booster project that's important to Charlotte's future is either connected to Marsicano or the foundation and the same two dozen power players that have always sung his praises.

Take the nationally recognized cancer center and brain tumor program that retired Bank of America exec Jim Palermo — who sits on both the Charlotte Chamber and CCCP boards — wants to bring to attract research companies here. The Brain Tumor Fund of the Carolinas, which will be raising money for the program, and which is funded by the Criterium bike race sponsored by Bank of America, Palermo's old employer, is one of many incestuous charitable projects that fall under the Foundation's umbrella.

The $147 million arts funding plan the Arts & Science Council is trying to ram through city council, along with its commitment for $52 million in private funding, was developed by the CCCP and the foundation.

When the school system's reputation began to take a decidedly downward trend a year ago, city elites launched the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Foundation. The official story was that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent James Pughsley and the school board were behind the new non-profit, but with Marsicano on its board and the new organization safely tucked under the foundation's fundraising umbrella, it was clear who really controlled it. Leaders of other local pro-school non-profits have complained that the new non-profit, which has largely functioned as a feel-good PR mouthpiece, will likely cut into their fundraising.

But that's not the point. Charlotte's elites are launching a bid to control all things school-related through the foundation, and if they have to roll over a few lower-class do-gooders, so be it. This is Charlotte's national reputation we're talking about.

Then there's the University area problem. Because it directly competes with uptown for development, power and prestige and is gaining steam as a population center, which could fragment uptown power, the University area must be carefully managed.

Enter the Community Building Initiative, another Foundation for the Carolinas umbrella organization that has spawned the University City Community Building Project, a thinly veiled effort by the uptowners to micro-manage the growing University area by identifying and "engaging" the area's leadership. That's booster-speak for bringing them into the uptown tent before they organize and become too powerful.

When he took the helm of the foundation, Marsicano pledged to increase its assets to a billion dollars by the decade's end. Since then, they've nearly doubled to $408 million and counting.

At the rate he's going, it looks like we'll hear a lot more from Marsicano in the future.

Tara.servatius@cln.com

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