When Andrew Jackson roamed the hills of the Carolinas, northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee, it was still frontier, and for generations the southern Piedmont remained economically and culturally isolated. Today, however, Old Hickory might be surprised to learn what this area has become.
Atlanta, a railroad junction with a few thousand souls before the Civil War, is now home to the nation’s busiest airport. It’s also headquarters of several global companies, including UPS, Home Depot and Coca-Cola, which BusinessWeek recently ranked as the most valuable brand worldwide.
Within a couple of hours is Charlotte, the nation’s No. 2 banking hub; Raleigh-Durham, a booming biotech center; and the Piedmont Triad, home to a handful of Fortune 500 companies. Even Upstate South Carolina, still somewhat underdeveloped, has the highest foreign investment per capita in the nation.
The region following I-85 from Raleigh-Durham to the Piedmont Triad to Charlotte to Atlanta is quickly becoming a “megapolis.” To be sure, a lot of this area is still poor, and the region doesn’t have the accumulated wealth of its financial rivals in the Northeast Corridor. Nor is its economy as robust as its southern siblings in the Texas Triangle.
But the southern Piedmont is growing rapidly. Georgia is slated to gain two seats and North Carolina is projected to gain one after congressional reapportionment, and two of the top ten fastest-growing congressional districts are in the Atlanta and Charlotte suburbs. Both states rank in the top five for net domestic migration, and South Carolina is in the top ten.
Companies are drawn by the affordable cost of living, relatively cheap labor markets, and low corporate taxes. North Carolina also has some of the most liberal banking laws in the nation, which explains its flourishing finance industry. But bigger economic and cultural factors are at work.
“Do not underestimate the potency of the elimination of Jim Crow segregation laws,” says Ferrel Guillory of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South. “Once that millstone was lifted, it liberated the South economically as well as socially. Corporations, which weren’t going to invest in a region of racial division and strife, did so once legal segregation was removed.”
At the same time, modernization was crucial. Interstates opened the region to the rest of the nation, and air conditioning made hot southern summers bearable.
The region’s universities also played an important role. “The Research Triangle, of course, was founded on the idea that big research universities would serve as catalysts, and they did,” says Guillory. “Atlanta, too, has a critical mass of universities that enrich both the public policy and the economic development of the region.”
Atlanta marketed itself as the “city too busy to hate,” but a more accurate description, according to UVA’s Larry Sabato, is that it is the hub of a “megapolis too busy making money to worry about history.”
Consider the case of Hugh McColl. McColl was born in the hills of Upstate South Carolina, not far from where Jackson himself was born. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and later joined North Carolina National Bank, which through a series of aggressive acquisitions became NationsBank.
Under McColl’s leadership, NationsBank later merged with Bank of America. He then took what the Wall Street Journal called “a scrappy Southern outsider” and built it into the nation’s second largest market capitalization.
McColl is the personification of both the old and new southern Piedmont. He had the same competitive, “scrappy” attitude that Jackson and many of the settlers in this region had. “So Hugh McColl does indeed have antecedents,” says Michael Barone.
But McColl also attended one of the best universities in America, and entered into banking at a time when North Carolina was liberalizing its laws and the region was modernizing. Later, he was one of the 49.9% of North Carolinians – a plurality – who voted for Barack Obama for president, a reflection of the new southern Piedmont.
As the region grows, expect it to take on more of an identity similar to McColl. This doesn’t mean that it’ll mirror his politics, but it does mean the region will be a more complex place, both politically and economically. The southern Piedmont will always have its roots in bootleggers racing stock cars through the muddy hills, but these days Charlotte is the kind of city where NASCAR meets the NASDAQ.
Patrick Ottenhoff, a project manager for New Media Strategies and a former staff writer for National Journal Group and The Hotline. Ottenhoff graduated from Kent School and Union College and is a native of McLean, Va. His writings have appeared in National Journal, Politico, and MSNBC.com. His political geography blog is The Electoral Map.