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May 2014
Big Thinker: Chase Saunders
By Barbara Fagan

     A polymath, derived from the Greek polumathçs “having learned much,” from polu- “much” + the stem of manthanein “learn,” is a person of wide knowledge or learning, whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. Such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems or, as here, to bring broad perspective to the interpretation of historical events.

     While the term is most often used to describe great thinkers whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas, in less formal terms, a polymath may simply be someone who knows a lot about many different things.

     In either case, it would aptly describe Chase Boone Saunders. A Charlotte native and a fifth generation North Carolinian, Saunders is an attorney with the McNair Law Firm and experienced mediator, a retired N.C. Superior Court judge, a savant of many subjects, and an accomplished artist.

     He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill, where he studied history and English, obtained his law degree from UNC as well, and has taken various financial planning and real estate courses at local universities and business schools.

     In addition to practicing law, Saunders is a volunteer or otherwise involved in a number of professional, historical, business, civic and charitable activities, and has been widely recognized for his achievements in his profession and in the community. In his “spare time,” the passionate historian watercolors “the changing face of the two Carolinas.”

     He is one of a growing number of Charlotteans heralding the zeitgeist to position Charlotte as the global hub for international trade on the East coast of the United States, advocating that increased commerce means greater prosperity for the region—more business, more jobs, more wealth, more innovation, more opportunities for all.

     “We have the opportunity to build a new city—and that happens rarely in someone’s lifetime,” Saunders says straightforwardly and profoundly.


A Rare Opportunity

     In his series of watercolors titled UPTOWN FROM, Saunders describes the city thusly:

     “Charlotte is a work-in-progress, Information Age City ever creating its future by coupling a mid-East location astride pre-Columbian, Indian trade routes to the energy of her people. Named by her founders for the English Queen Charlotte, and later called the Queen City, her towers of commercial power are visible over a verdant forest canopy as the center of a region with significant business activity.

     “Charlotte is a city built on hard red clay which only the value of hard work made productive. And it is no different today! Charlotte continues to welcome and acknowledge the successes of those who come here to work hard, live, and play.”

     This Renaissance man has a clear vision and enthusiasm for Charlotte that is as evident as the sparkles in his eyes—and contagious.

     “Charlotte is on the threshold of another boom driven by its strength as a logistics center. Representative of that is the new intermodal facility at the airport which makes Charlotte a ‘city of ports’ rather than a singular port city.

     “And we have the opportunity to build that new city,” he maintains.

     Saunders is a member of the Charlotte World Affairs Council and Charlotte World Trade Association, and a presenter and promoter of Regional Development Initiatives and the Charlotte 2030 vision theme: Create It, Make It, Move It with Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) President Tony Zeiss and nationally-recognized urban planner Michael Gallis. He is founding member of the global vision leaders group, community and civic leaders who believe that time is of the essence.

     He characterizes the group as a “21st century, open-source entity”—a collaborative forum linked by a common goals, common interests, and digital communications. Described more from the wealth of materials amassed at, and referenced with respect thereto, various group leaders have made and can be scheduled to make presentations of CLTglobal materials and updates can be requested and resources shared at the website.

     This grassroots group is aptly named. Its goal is to advocate, promote and stimulate Charlotte and its surrounding region as a global hub of international trade—a great inland port that’s an economic powerhouse.

     In the Create It, Make It, Move It initiative, the group highlights three key components of that goal: innovation and entrepreneurialism; manufacturing, especially advanced manufacturing; and a distribution infrastructure that moves goods efficiently and for a lower cost around the world.

     While the goal may seem a stretch to some, there are real indicators that support the global vision for Charlotte. Charlotte is already a growing center of energy, finance and health care, and its standing as a transportation and distribution hub has been elevated exponentially with the merger of American and US Airways, the improvements to the airport and the new intermodal distribution facility.

     Charlotte has also been recognized for its global competitiveness in an IBM and Site Selection magazine report which named Charlotte as one of only 12 U.S. cities to make its Top 100 Global Cities.

     The seed of the global vision leaders group began simply enough two years ago, when Saunders shared his visualization of Charlotte through four distinct booms and busts with Zeiss at a Rotary Club meeting. Together, they decided that the time was right for Charlotte to be proactive and create a model for the city’s next 50 years—a vision for a new city. But what would that new city look like?

     “To determine that, you first need to pull back and say where has Charlotte been? What is its history?” explains Saunders, a former president of the Mecklenburg Historical Association.


A Perspective on Charlotte

     “Charlotte is a story of place and people,” Saunders starts out.

     “At its most fundamental, Charlotte exists because of its location. It’s located at a crossroads of trading paths which were Indian paths, and before that, most likely, animal migratory paths.

     “Charlotte was built on the high ground between two creeks. In Europe, castles would have been built on the location, but in America, we built towns. The crossroads of what is now Trade and Tryon was situated on a trading path called the Great Wagon Road that ran along the Piedmont from Philadelphia through Lancaster County on the east side of the Appalachians.

     “The trading path, about 745 miles long, ran through Charlotte on its way to Augusta. In the early 1700s, it was the path that the new immigrants took south after they arrived in either New York or Philadelphia.

     “In the 1740s and 1750s, the British had worked out a peace with the Cherokees so that the path could be enlarged into a road. And relations were friendly with the Catawba Indians, so the area around Charlotte and South Carolina was available for settlement.”

     Saunders points out that the people who settled in the Charlotte area were independent and self-reliant—a defining force for its future.

     “In the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Scots were wiped out as a power in England,” Saunders explains, “and 40,000, 50,000, maybe even 60,000 Scots immigrated into America, settling in western Pennsylvania.

     “Other settlers in the Colonies were the Scots-Irish, driven from Northern Ireland because of wool tariffs and other economic privation. They were Scots and Presbyterians. America was the place where everyone who wasn’t an Anglican was sent or was encouraged to go, and that included Puritans, Anabaptists and many different sects. All the religious dissenters—the people who thought differently—came here. When all the land in Pennsylvania had been acquired, they migrated south along the Great Wagon Road and settled our region.

     All you have to do is look at the names of present-day South Carolina counties: York, Chester and Lancaster. All of those counties were named after western Pennsylvania counties.

     “So if you think about the people who settled here, they were oftentimes run out of their countries. They had to travel across the sea, and then they had to travel down a wagon path with whatever they could carry. Only the toughest of people who had no other choice would do that,” remarks Saunders.

     “That gave rise to a highly independent, fairly well-educated, self-reliant group of religious dissenters. And they also had no great love for the English. The end result was the Mecklenburg Declaration and Resolves in 1775 when Charlottetown left the Crown.

     “This dislike of the English and the control the Crown exerted over the colonies led to widespread tensions and gave rise to the Regulators in Alamance County who rebelled against excessive taxes, dishonest officials and the building of the Royal Governor’s palace in New Bern. Locally, the major source of contention was the Vestry Act.

     “That was a damnable piece of legislation,” asserts Saunders. “The Vestry Act required all landowners to pay money to the Anglican Church to support local Anglican preachers who were basically reporting back to the Crown on the status of things. Presbyterians were paying preachers from another faith to impose their practices on the Presbyterians—spying on them, performing their marriage and death ceremonies, and educating their children to be good little Anglicans.

     “That didn’t sit well with the people. They decided they should create a town that would allow them to have a charter and be a political entity which could negotiate with the Crown. So in 1768 they created Charlottetown.

     “By this time the Regulators were in open revolt and Governor Tryon needed a military force, provisions, and guns to fight them. So the people of Charlottetown struck a deal and provided troops and provisions with the agreement that the Royal Governor wouldn’t enforce the Vestry Act—and the people of Charlottetown could educate their children and have religious freedom.

     “But afterwards, the English Parliament, who had to approve the agreement, refused to honor the deal. So the people decided they couldn’t trust the British. By 1775, concurrent with the Battle of Lexington, Charlotte declared itself independent through a declaration and a number of resolves; the event was called The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.


Boom No. 1: Gold!

     “Charlotte’s location along the Great Wagon Road made it an important supply center throughout the Revolutionary War, but its first real economic boom came in the 1790s as gold was discovered in Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties. The largest deposits of gold were found in rock from which it had to be extracted. That took skill. That brought in miners, financiers, and mining engineers and a mining industry began.

     “There was enough gold here that it became the local specie and until the California Gold Rush, Charlotte was the leading gold producer in the nation. Charlotte petitioned for and received a branch of the U.S. Mint in 1838.”

     At the turn of the century, the economy also depended upon the movement of raw materials and produce along the rivers where they could enter the Landsford Canal. Saunders cites canals as the area’s way to transport goods in the early 1800s but by the 1840s high technology was carriage by rail…the new transportation of the day.

     “So forget canals,” Saunders says. “Charlotte had to have a railroad. Eastern North Carolina already had a railroad. Initially they didn’t want to extend it all the way to Charlotte, so folks from Charlotte started talking to people in Upstate South Carolina. Camden, which was the richest part of the Upstate, didn’t like the idea but Columbia was just getting started and they said it looked good to them.

     “That caused the businessmen in eastern North Carolina to rethink running a railroad to Charlotte and, by 1856, Charlotte became the intersection of both a North-South and an East-West railroad—each of a different gauge—but we were nevertheless at the crossroads. Salisbury, the largest city in western North Carolina at that time, missed out on that important opportunity. It made Charlotte part of the East Coast supply chain and reinforced our logistical position.

     “Cotton had been a significant crop in Charlotte, as it was in the rest of the South,” Saunders continues. “In the 1850s, cotton factors sprung up to handle the financial transactions, warehouses were built and the population of Charlotte doubled between 1850 and 1860. This was the real beginning of Charlotte as a center of commerce.

     “The existence of two railroad lines meant that a factor could sell his goods—primarily cotton—either to the North or to the South, wherever the price was better.”

     Charlotte’s railroads also featured prominently in the Civil War. “The North blockaded all of the Southern ports on the East and Gulf coasts,” Saunders explains, “and they could bombard any of the factories in the coastal cities, so the Confederacy had no safe place to make engine shafts for their blockade runners, or cannon balls or gun shells.

     “Charlotte was inland but it was on the railroad, so the naval arms industry with its engineers set up the naval works for the Confederacy in Charlotte. After the war, Charlotte had some assets to restart its economy. Charlotte wasn’t burned down by Sherman’s troops like Columbia, S.C., and other southern cities, so we had a leg up on growth and the emerging new technology—electricity.

     “Electricity allowed you to build and power cotton mills wherever there was a decent body of running water, but you needed engineers to set them up. Because of the Confederate Naval Yard, the engineers were already here.

     “J.P. Morgan had the monopoly on electricity in New York and the Middle Atlantic States. In the South, James B. Duke, who made his first fortune in tobacco, decided that he would invest in the same technology and build a regional economy with it. Electricity powered mills, lighted buildings, lighted streets, and powered street cars and electric trains.

     “As events unfolded, he was helped in this effort by the governor.” Saunders explains, “In 1916, North Carolina was hit by two Category 4 hurricanes causing more than three days of downpours. Tremendous flooding destroyed most of the bridges on the East Coast and in the mountains and flushed any of the towns along rivers. Just west of Charlotte, the Catawba River crested 47 feet above flood level.

     “It was so bad that food had to be brought in by railroad to keep people from starving. As a result, the governor determined that couldn’t happen again and proposed to Duke that if he dammed up all those rivers, he could develop steam plants at the dams to help pay off the expense.

     “So that’s how Duke came to control the authority of the dams from the mountains to the county line and ultimately down into South Carolina. It was the beginning of the energy business in the Carolinas. It was a wonderful stroke of luck for Charlotte. It gave us an energy business which is critical to our regional economy.”


Booms No. 2, 3 and 4: Military Base, Textiles and Banking

     World War I brought Charlotte’s second economic boom. “With war clouds inevitably coming,” Saunders says, “Charlotte sensed an opportunity, sent a delegation to Washington and persuaded Congress to give Charlotte a military base.”

     Camp Greene is built in just a few months on the acreage of the Dowd Farm and 60,000 men from all over the country arrived by train into Charlotte. “Each one of these soldiers,” says Saunders, “was getting $8.00 a month and $4.00 had to go home, but he had $4.00 he could spend here.

     “The military base was a real boon to Charlotte. It brought in a lot of cash and all the support businesses associated with it but it also, importantly, brought awareness to the rest of the nation. Now there was a place called ‘Charlotte,’ and it was where their sons were.

     “Because of the base and the growth of the local textile businesses, local banks thrived and a branch of the Federal Reserve was established in Charlotte in 1927. This meant that Charlotte was a financial player and was able to affect the flow of money through its branch of the Fed throughout the region.”

     So by the 1930s Charlotte had regional roads, trains, electricity, telephones, radio, automobiles, and trucks. Commercial aircraft were the next technology.

     “In the early 1930s,” Saunders continues, “planes are the ‘the next new thing’ and Mayor Ben Douglas decided that Charlotte was a growing city and needed an airport. By this time Charlotte was in the Great Depression and Douglas had to figure out how to put people to work. He got a grant from the Works Progress Administration and put the word out that Charlotte was going to build an airport and anybody who wanted a job should show up. People walked, thumbed and drove to the west side of Charlotte and built an airport.

     “In the beginning there wasn’t much traffic at the airport, but it was important because of its location. Airmail and travelers moving between Florida and New York were the primary source of business. The airport would expand during World War II when it was taken over by the U.S. Army and made an essential part of the war effort. After the war, it would service a number of traveling salesmen selling goods manufactured in Northern companies and abroad throughout the region. By the 1950s, the airport joined the list of logistical resources which would contribute to the economy. Mayor Belk led efforts to expand it.”

     “By the 1950s Charlotte was in its third economic boom as a leading regional textile center,” Saunders continues. “Threads, elastic, fibers, and fabric were being produced. Some of the materials were sent to Michigan to be put in automobiles. Some were used in North Carolina cities for the furniture upholstery. And much of it was used to make articles of clothing ranging from socks to pants to sweaters.

     “The expansion of the textile industry led to growth in the area’s trucking. Charlotte’s location, which allows access to half the U.S. population within a day’s drive, gave Charlotte a tremendous advantage in distribution…another logistical, supply chain asset.

     “You overlay that with the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and Charlotte gets I-85 and then I-77 with its easy to access I-40. About the same time, WBT led the way in building a huge transmitter with East Coast range and WBTV later came on to make Charlotte the broadcasting center for the region.

     “Because of good transportation, a favorable labor environment and the airport, foreign companies start to make Charlotte their home. Especially German companies, which produced machinery and chemicals used in the textile industry, located in Charlotte and all of the surrounding counties in North and South Carolina.

     “Charlotte’s fourth and most recent economic boom resulted in the city becoming the second largest banking center in the country. But it all started because some very entrepreneurial bankers decide they had to get bigger, and to do that they had to cross state lines.

     “Hugh McColl smartly took advantage of a Florida loophole at a time when interstate banking not the law of the land, acquiring a trust company in Florida. Thereafter, he was instrumental in getting federal laws changed to permit interstate banking and began to aggressively acquire bank after bank in the Southeast and then, nationally. He led local bankers in perfecting this expansionary model. The Charlotte banking community grabbed market share and surprised the nation by becoming a huge force in the industry.

     “There’s synergy to banks,” Saunders says. “Once you have banks, people and businesses start moving to where the money is. And they could do this by air.”

     In 1979, the airport became a hub servicing many cities. Another piece of the logistics story fell into place.

     “But the airport still had a modest model,” explains Saunders, “so in 1997, Airport Director Jerry Orr and transportation and logistics expert Michael Gallis started thinking of ways to grow the airport and increase freight flow to build revenue. They met with Norfolk Southern executives and decided, with city support, to build a state-of-the-art, 21st century intermodal facility…the most efficient location for the exchange of cargo among trains, trucks and planes. Norfolk Southern agreed, invested $92 million, and the intermodal facility opened at Charlotte Douglas International in 2013.

     “With this intermodal facility, Charlotte has a unique asset for moving goods faster. This means the city is now a player in the global logistics supply chain. Outside of Long Beach, California, the three largest intermodal facilities are Chicago, Houston, and now, Charlotte, North Carolina. The new intermodal facility is a logistical Lamborghini. It is designed to race. It is designed to compete. Now it just needs a driver to realize its potential.”


The Age of Fulfillment

     “The next big age is going to be the Age of Fulfillment driven by logistics,” asserts Saunders. “It’s the age of ‘I want it,’ ‘I want it now,’ and not only that, ‘I want it to spec.’ Silicon Valley is designing the software that will allow the customization of mass to make this a reality.

     “Ford today can make a million variations of its F-150 truck because it can design and test all those variations on a computer. They want to let you determine the features you want and the computer sends the instructions to the machines that make the truck customized to your needs. And once it is made, today’s consumer wants it delivered tomorrow so that he or she is fulfilled!

     “What’s also important about this customization revolution is that it is part of another movement, that of the end of inventory. Inventory has costs associated with handling, spoilage, deterioration, damage and storage. Ideally, a manufacturer wants to make it and move it to the end user without delay. That places a premium on locations where you can do that.”

     “All of this is part of the re-shoring and next-shoring of American industry. That is what the new industrial revolution is all about. ‘Real nations make things,’ says Chris Anderson in his cutting edge text Makers. And it matters where you are located.

     “The driver of Charlotte’s this next boom will center on logistics. Logistics means flow. The faster and less expensive the flow of anything, the more successful a business or a city can become. To do an inventory of local ‘flow’ assets, we need only consider our regional crossroads location and the companies involved in the ‘flow business’ using highways, planes, rail to Eastern, Gulf and West Coast ports, oil and gas pipelines, communications platforms, financial data pipelines, and big data pipelines moving all of the information supporting the cloud and streaming content to our smart phones. (This is why Google, Apple, Amazon, and Disney are in the region.)

     “Add to that a critical, human resource pipeline, a ‘workforce pipeline’ to provide a trained workforce, which is being built by Heath Morrison of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, Tony Zeiss of Central Piedmont Community College, Bill Anderson of MeckEd, and Phil Dubois of UNC Charlotte,” confirms Saunders.

     “Access to these pipelines means businesses can operate smarter, faster and cheaper. Successful 21st century businesses, manufacturers and distributors must locate where they can get their stuff to the largest markets the fastest and the cheapest without inventory. Charlotte is one of those singular locations on the planet with all essential pipelines.

     “Remember cities like Tyre, Athens, Corinth, Venice, Pisa, Genoa, Carthage? All of those places used their logistical assets to grow as acknowledged by the history books. Logistics matters.

     “The country has been divided into seven economic megaregions. Not only is Charlotte in the center of one of them (the PAM or Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion), but she is also the only major distribution location midway between the North and South and the East and Midwest.

     “We’ve got to leverage these assets to attract new domestic and international businesses. We’ve got to educate everyone and explain to them the opportunities which they present. This needs to be in the consciousness of our business and civic leaders,” says Saunders, clearly a man on a mission.

     “We’ve got to have a strategy to leverage all business sectors with these assets because we are in a global competition for jobs and opportunity. Other cities are aggressively positioning themselves for the future. We have to realize we’re in a global competition,” Saunders emphasizes.

     “And we need leadership with local solutions, because we can’t count on anybody to do this for us. We can’t count on Raleigh or on Washington to solve all of our problems. Charlotte’s going to have to come up with its own solutions. Business people have done it before.

     “The task is doable. All we have to do is look how we got here. We started a city. We started a gold mining industry. We started a military base. We started a manufacturing and textile powerhouse. We started a banking center. We started an energy hub. These and other things were started by the people of this community who had a dream, who had a vision. All of it was the result of individual and collective creative energy!”


Creating a Global Crossroads of Commerce

     As part of this focus on global commerce, the U.S. Commercial Service and the North Carolina District Export Council are gathering the U.S. Commercial diplomats from 14 countries in North and South America here in Charlotte in October to provide information about access to world trade.

     From Saunders’ perspective, this is a propitious time in the history of this community because we now have the opportunity to play on a global scale. This has never happened before. The event in the fall will more formally introduce the foreign trade community to Charlotte, to be followed next year by the completion of the Panama Canal expansion allowing transit by the huge post-Panamax cargo ships.

     They will deliver the commerce of the world to the ports (in most cases the newly expanding Port of Charleston) where it will transit by rail to Charlotte’s intermodal facility for further distribution. That will help make Charlotte a true inland port city in the center of a thriving global commercial marketplace.

     “Creative energy, making things and moving things is what we have done in Charlotte since the beginning. Our tradition is summarized in the phrase “Create It, Make It, Move It.” It is the elevator pitch that sums it all up. We can use it to attract business and investment capital to the region and aggressively pursue domestic and international trade and business opportunities.

     “There is no reason we cannot build a 21st century economic city-state with our assets to create a new city with new trade routes, using new technology and new energy to become a major player in this new age.

     “It is time for Charlotte to envision how she will become a new regional city in a global marketplace. It is all about thinking BIG,” emphasizes Saunders. “Charlotte—a place where we create it, make it, and move it better and faster than anyone else. Why not here and why not now?”


Barbara Fagan is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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