Cover Story: Charlotte charging ahead

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Transforming the Queen City from a banktown to energy town.

A major step in the process Monday when Charlotte-based Duke Energy acquired Raleigh's Progress Energy for more than $13 billion.  If approved it could become the nation's largest utility.

But as we saw in the banks' deal-making over the years these mergers pay big dividends for Charlotte.

The transformation into an energy hub began more than two years ago.  It was the late 2008.  Charlotte was still smarting from losing Wachovia's headquarters.

Duke Energy's CEO Jim Rogers made a bold statement.  If Charlotte played its cards right it could become one of the new energy hubs in the United States.

Many of us had no idea what he was talking about.  We're starting to understand now.

You want to see a field that's growing, it's energy.  Why?  The infrastructure needs improving.  The aging power grid needs an upgrade.  High-polluting power the nation is trying to wean itself from.  And demand for electricity (all those electronics we're buying) is going through the roof.

Two years ago, Jim Rogers, Duke Energy CEO, said if you want to make money - follow the dollars.  Tap into energy.

Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan said Rogers laid the vision.

"He has a vision that Charlotte can compete.. that the energy sector.. it is energy's time if you will across the globe," said Morgan.

Now with Duke Energy merging with Progress Energy - becoming the nation's biggest electric utility - it'll have more power and others who will support Duke are bound to follow.

"The Bank of America"

If it sounds familiar it should.  Charlotte's big banks built themselves up through mergers and acquisitions.

As a result others related to banking like:   Accounting, Attorneys, I.T., other professional services and other financial services firms followed here making Charlotte the second largest bank town in the country.

Charlotte Center City Partners' Michael Smith said, "We may be able to do Act 2 in power generation and in the utility industry."

It's already paying off.  Since the initiative began two years ago Charlotte's added 3,000 jobs in the energy sector bringing the total to 20,000 jobs.

And firms like Siemens, Toshiba, Shaw, Areva and others have either entered the market or expanded here.  Keep in mind it's been during one of the worst recessions on record.

"It's been gratifying.. a little bit lucky.. that we have seen these announcements during a time when we have put a focus on this particular sector," said Morgan.

Charlotte's also aiming to become one of the most environmentally sustainable cities in the world.

It's set a goal to reduce energy consumption in Uptown 20-percent over the next 5 years.

Says Center City Partners' Smith, "We've got a lot of change going on in the industry. We've got bold leadership. You get all that coming together."

UNC Charlotte is also involved.  On the campus they're building a place called "EPIC" - the Energy Production Infrastructure Center, which when finished will provide academic level research and support to the energy industry.

Charlotte is the geographic center of a band of engineering talent that stretches from Georgia Tech to Virginia Tech that includes Clemson, NC State and North Carolina A and T.  Leaders say the next generation talent is here to support the energy hub.

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