Are we forgiving? Some in Charlotte are banking on it

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 02, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Since everybody agrees that Hugh McColl is a very brilliant fellow, it will now be a thing of beauty to watch him attempt to prove it. Already, he has proved it for Charlotte, N.C., where he's the darling of the moment. Automatically, though, this makes him a potential persona non banker around here.

Did you see him on television last week from Chicago? With everybody around here looking on like orphans with our faces against the window of some terrific party from which we'd been excluded, there was McColl playing kissy-face with Jerry Richardson, the owner of the brand new Carolina Panthers.

Without McColl, Richardson is still hustling blue-plate specials at his Denny's restaurants. McColl is the chairman of NationsBank Corp., the high-profile financial savior of Charlotte's expansion football franchise. Without his bank, Charlotte is strictly Nowhere, which happens to be the exact place on the map where Baltimore football fans find themselves.

And, for many around here, it automatically raises a question to ask McColl and NationsBank, to wit: Your bank helped deprive Baltimore of a return to pro football, and now you want Baltimoreans to put our money into your bank?

It is NationsBank's unintended sense of timing to have given Charlotte all of this high-profile money at the precise moment they were taking over Maryland National Bank. The merger happened Oct. 1, and the name change will happen next year.

For McColl, it's just one in a series of grand financial triumphs. When he took over the Charlotte bank, it had about $7 billion in total assets. Today, it's the third-biggest bank company in the country, with about $150 billion in assets.

Slight problem, at the moment: Will people in their newest community, Baltimore, think NationsBank has a lot of nerve showing up during our period of mourning?

"Problem?" said NationsBank spokesman Ellison Clary yesterday morning, from his office in Charlotte. He said the word as if such a scenario had never dawned on a single soul at the bank.

"We're just one of the banks used by Mr. Richardson to get a football team, not the only one," said Clary. "Our position has been clear. We've said that, in a perfect world, the NFL would expand to four cities: Charlotte, Baltimore, Jacksonville and Memphis."

He's being coy. It is a fact that NationsBank now happens to operate in all four of those cities, but not in St. Louis, the remaining expansion contender. Thus, all this generosity has the feel of an empty gesture.

Also, while other Charlotte banks did support the football bid there, Nationsbank is the only one simultaneously attempting to capture people's confidence (and money) in Baltimore, even as it's taking bows for fronting Charlotte's football effort.

Specifically how substantial was that effort, NationsBank won't say. But every time Jerry Richardson's financing seemed to be collapsing, there were reports of the bank propping it up. When Richardson had to sell so-called "permanent seat licenses," giving fans the right to buy season tickets in Charlotte's future stadium, the drive came in far under target.

Though NationsBank had already guaranteed considerable money, McColl immediately agreed to front $15 million more. The Washington Post reported Sunday that McColl approved it without even checking with anybody else in his company.

Any man with that much muscle, and that much nerve, might figure it'll be a snap to sell NationsBank to Baltimore. Maybe he's right. After all, banking's just banking, so what's the difference? But football, that's a more personal matter, particularly in a community already feeling it's been shafted by out-of-towners.

To that end, bank officials point to last August, when they pledged to buy luxury box seats here and McColl declared, "We're very much committed to Baltimore and Maryland. We [the bank] spent an awful lot of money to get in there, and we care about the community and its success."

It was the diplomatic thing to say, and it struck the right chord at the time. Baltimoreans still thought they had a shot at a football team. After last week, though, a sense of bitterness has set in.

And anybody walking into town now, with such close association to Charlotte football, has more than a slight selling job to do. Even if his name is Hugh McColl, who everybody says is a very brilliant guy.

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