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Business leaders give mixed forecast

Charlotte's business elite gathered Wednesday to hear from the most elite among them. The CEOs of Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Duke Energy all offered their own forecast for the economy in 2010. Combine their comments with those of their audience, and next year could be another painful one for Charlotte. WFAE's Julie Rose reports. Technically, the recession is over because the nation's economy grew slightly last quarter. But nobody's dancing on the front lines of business in the Charlotte region. Here's how Jim Carpenter describes it. He talks to a lot of businesses as the president of the Union County Chamber of Commerce: "They all say things are still slow, but not slowing down," says Carpenter. "There's hope for things getting back to normal, whatever that means. But things are still slow." A lot of people at the Charlotte Chamber's Economic Forecast Luncheon used that word: slow. Rich Davis of IKON office solutions is looking for one sign of improvement. "The job market needs to pick up before we're really gonna see a turnaround," says Davis. He says IKON is hiring for certain positions that come open, but "we're not hiring in general." In October, the Charlotte region's unemployment rate hit 12-percent and that doesn't include all the people who've given up looking for work or taken a part-time job just to get by. And yet, companies are hiring in Charlotte. And people like Jason Bria are still moving to Charlotte to find work. He got a job in just three months. "It is unusual," admits Bria. "I just read in Fortune magazine that the average professional with an advanced degree is unemployed about 26 weeks right now. So to have found a job in 12 weeks, I was feeling pretty lucky and fortunate." Bria was hired as an attorney at Foresite Development which is involved in one business sector that seems to be offering the most hopeful signs at the moment: green energy. But Charlotte is still best known for its banks, and the view from Tryon Street is what local business people turned out for at the Chamber luncheon. Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf and Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis gave versions of the same forecast: The worst is over. The recovery will be slow but steady. Both banks expect modest improvement in the housing market next year, and they both say consumer spending is a key factor. Right now, Lewis says consumers are more inclined to save, "and frankly, that mindset and more of a look toward savings is good for the long term, but it just doesn't give us that short rebound that we would like to see." But then Jim Rogers took the stand and he all but sucked the air out of the room with his glum predictions. He's the CEO of Duke Energy, which has a front seat to another key economic indicator - demand for electricity. "We look out 5 years and we see the demand flat to slightly up," said Rogers. "Where's the rebound? So, simply put I think the recovery at best is probably very anemic and unclear how long - whether it's two years or five years or more. I think it's anybody's guess." After that, Bank of America's Ken Lewis tried to lighten things up a bit, but went on to admit Rogers could be right. "If he starts that again next year, give him the hook!" said Lewis, laughing. "Frankly, if I had to look back at our view of things, and probably a lot of economists view, you'd have to say we have been optimistic to a fault." And John Stumpf of Wells Fargo added, "I probably don't see it quite as negative as Jim does. And if he's right, I won't be back next year - I'll be retiring with Ken!" That got a good laugh from the audience. But the look on a lot of faces made it clear the sentiment hit a little close to home.