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New Documentary Looks At The Business Leaders Who Helped Shape Charlotte

The new documentary "Making Modern Charlotte" looks at the people who helped transform Charlotte from a sleepy town into a financial center with skyscrapers and professional sports teams.

The new documentary "Making Modern Charlotte" looks at the people who helped transform Charlotte from a sleepy town into a financial center with skyscrapers and professional sports teams. The documentary focuses on the 1960s through the early 2000s.

Watching it, you get a sense of how many of those changes were a result of business leaders trying to boost the reputation of Charlotte.

Mark Ethridge produced the documentary — which will air on PBS Charlotte Friday night. His career has included time as the Managing Editor of the Charlotte Observer, and the publisher of the Charlotte Business Journal. He joined WFAE's Lisa Worf to discuss the documentary.

Lisa Worf: So you got a chuckle from me when the documentary mentioned the vision that drove those who built Charlotte — that is a Charlotte better than Atlanta without all the traffic. That is one way of putting it.

Mark Ethridge: That was the mantra of the era.

Worf: So, what's the larger sentiment behind that?

Ethridge: Charlotte was the place, as someone in the documentary said, that always seemed to have a chip on its shoulder. It didn't have the mountains. It didn't have the coast. It didn't have a big riverfront. It was at the crossroads of the Carolinas. But that's about it.

Now, what it did have was no plantation-based aristocracy. It was populated by people who came from the Piedmont — people who knew what hard work was. And it came from the textile mills and farms. And, in many ways, they had something to prove. Hugh McColl in the documentary talks about Charlotte as being like a city in a defeated nation. It wanted to put that behind it. Here's what McColl said:

I knew what a city was supposed to look like and ours surely didn't look that way. It was the most boring damn city I'd ever seen in my whole life. You couldn't buy a drink. They had more churches than bars. It was a remarkably boring town. So I realized that people were what made the city is great. And the main thing I wanted was people living in the center city."

Worf: Why was business so closely intertwined with so many of these civic decisions? The building of the Blumenthal all the expansion of the airport, for example.

Ethridge: Well, I think that there was an understanding certainly about the airport — that the airport was this era's train depot. And if the train stopped in your town, your town was likely to be something. And if it didn't, it wouldn't.

And so John Belk — the mayor at that time in the early 1970s — was a huge proponent of airport expansion. He also happened to be head of the Chamber of Commerce and he also happened to be the head of one of the area's biggest businesses, which was the Belk department stores. So, this sort of interplay between civic leadership and corporate leadership was personified in the leaders — both in business and in the city.

Worf: You mentioned John Belk and, certainly, you hear a lot about the competition between Bank of America's Hugh McColl and First Union's Ed Crutchfield. Who were the others driving this change?

Ethridge: Bill Lee of Duke Power was very instrumental, as well as Rolfe Neill who was the publisher of The Charlotte Observer.

All of these people had an interest in Charlotte being bigger than it was — the banks in particular — and not just for the obvious sort of business reasons, which is bigger city more business. But you couldn't recruit great people to a city that was lacking, that didn't have cultural resources, that didn't have a nightlife. And so, it wasn't just, "Gee, if the place is bigger we can get bigger." It's, "We can't get better unless the place is bigger."

Worf:And what kind of decisions did they make that they felt made this place better?

Ethridge: Well, one of the examples that the movie talks about is the symphony. The symphony was failing in the 1970s and 1980s and the group of businessmen, including Ed Crutchfield and Hugh McColl and Rolfe Neill and others. McColl says in the movie that none of them particularly cared about this symphony but they knew that a great town had to have a symphony in it. And by God, they were going to do whatever it took to make sure that we did.

While the banks were huge rivals at the same time, they both recognized that in areas where they could cooperate they could make Charlotte bigger and better than it was.

Worf: Was this change good for all of Charlotte's residents?

Ethridge: Well, I think one of the things that's very important to point out is this film is incomplete. It really deals with the business and civic leaders of that time — and only the most well-known ones. We devote a fair amount of attention to the airport and the leadership there. But it was also all the people in the communities, all the people on the west side who understood what airport expansion could mean for them — good and bad.

So there are many folks whose contributions are huge and are not recognized.

Worf: Former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt noted this in the documentary:

"What's contrary to the growth of a really great city, is that you could have a relatively small group of men make the most important economic decisions for the community. I thought that was not a good idea."

Worf: In particular, he noted that at one time when City Council was all at-large representation, most members belonged to the same church in Myers Park. And once he got in, they decided to change that to district representation. Was there something missed because there wasn't a more diverse group of people making decisions in that era?

Ethridge:Absolutely. The point is that it was representative of the southeast wedge with — as mayor Gantt put it — one token black guy from the other parts of the community. And yes, think of all the voices that never were heard or never had an opportunity. And so Charlotte probably wasn't as good as it could have been had it been even more inclusive in those times and I think we've recognized that now.

However, I will say that learning about Bill Lee, Rolfe Neill, Ed Crutchfield and Hugh McColl, the point is made several times in the movie by several people that they were very open to new ideas — that they themselves, while being in essentially all white males, did understand that they didn't have a monopoly on good ideas.

Editor's Note: Mark Ethridge is the chairman of WFAE's board of directors. The documentary also will be available online through the Charlotte Business Journal .

Copyright 2019 WFAE