The regional bank president clearly saw himself as a conqueror; his desk was lined with tiny flags of the states where his firm had gobbled up smaller institutions.
But where he really wanted to plant his flag was on the downtown he surveyed below his penthouse office window. He saw my sprawling, yet lethargic, hometown as a future world-class city worthy of the bank he planned to build.
During the early 1980s, when I was interviewing him for a profile, the small, wiry man had built partnerships with like-minded government officials, business and civic leaders. His excitement was contagious; but more important, he was willing to invest money in efforts that leveraged opportunities, even with competitors.
I can't tell you whether he was a visionary or an egotist, or both, or whether it even matters. But Hugh McColl built North Carolina National Bank into Bank of America and helped make Charlotte one of the nation's biggest banking centers.
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Downtown is now full of skyscraper condos, professional sports, retail, greenways and light rail, along with interesting mixed-use and mixed-income developments.
None of that would have been possible if city leaders had not deliberately focused on rebuilding the city's core. It forced public, and often contentious, debates about what residents wanted the city to become. That was especially urgent for Charlotte, which once defined itself as envious of Atlanta and thankful for not being in South Carolina.
As Lexington business and civic leaders join others from Louisville to head to Charlotte today on a fact-finding trip, I hope they discuss the significance of downtown investment for citywide growth and the challenges of shaping and moving toward a vision.
It might help put an end to the "downtown versus neighborhoods" grumbling that surfaced during the recent primary elections over the proposed Rupp Entertainment and Arts District. Whatever becomes of that plan — which aims to redevelop 46 acres to include the arena, convention center, Town Branch Creek and parkland — Lexington must not allow itself to be infected with such shortsighted and self-defeating "us against them" thinking.
Investment in the too-long-neglected downtown helps attract more well-paying businesses, keep young professionals here, and provide housing for older residents looking to downsize. When I moved here 17 years ago, I lived downtown when it felt like a ghost town. Now both public and private investment have added new life.
None of the downtown proposals are immune from scrutiny or criticism, especially not those seeking public investment. As a reporter who covered urban redevelopment, I saw many missteps and some shameful neglect committed in the name of urgency and in pursuit of profit. I also realized that even the best-sounding financing plan can face trouble and that every successful plan requires some small degree of faith. So, due diligence is essential. But that does not mean that everyone should run to their corners and come out swinging.
Not too long ago, residents from all over this city said loudly that they cared about downtown: objecting to the demolition by neglect of buildings on a key block, demanding a say on the designs of the buildings to replace it, and finding various ways to use the greenspace left behind for a while.
Yet, if people really relish downtown — and not just a controversy — then it is time to invest in the area.
Lexington, fortunately, is not big enough to have disconnected suburbs. No Lexington neighborhood is more than a 20-minute drive from downtown. That compactness is an asset that makes an appealing city: a family friendly place full of educated people and surrounded by a world-class landscape. Even as we cherish and capitalize on our history and traditions, we are building a national reputation as progressive and innovative.
We know Lexington is special. Now we just have to ensure the city's heart reflects our pride.
Reach Vanessa Gallman at email@example.com or 231-1393.