The biggest building is 60 stories and belongs to Bank of America Corp. Another dominant building is the stadium of the Carolina Panthers. And perhaps the best way to understand modern Charlotte is through how the bank helped the professional football team come to town.

NFL officials worried the market wasn't big or rich enough to support a team in the 1990s. So Hugh McColl, then CEO of NationsBank, the forerunner to Bank of America, offered the team loans for the stadium and vouched for the ownership group. When the NFL awarded Charlotte its team in 1993, even The Charlotte Observer gushed in a front page story about what that day meant: "And forever more, this single decision will likely change the way people across the country feel about what lies between Washington and Atlanta."

The city threw a parade the next day. Owner Jerry Richardson was in the first car, while McColl and other prominent bankers were right behind.

The Panthers remain a big draw, most recently thanks to the on-field heroics of quarterback Cam Newton. Locals also embrace NASCAR, which has corporate offices in the area and holds races at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord.

As for the banks, their success can be connected to textiles, the first industry to thrive in the post-Civil War South. In 1905, over half the looms in the U.S. were within 100 miles of Gastonia, which lies about 15 miles to the west of Charlotte. Those plants struggled to get financing in New York, so well-off merchants and farmers around Charlotte banded together to lend them money, making their own fortunes in the process, said University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor David Goldfield.

Another key to Charlotte's growth is its airport, which started as the city's big Works Progress Administration Project during the Great Depression. The Charlotte-Douglas Airport in 2011 ranked as the sixth busiest airport in the world in takeoffs and landings. The airport is a busy hub for cargo, providing a quick way up and down the East Coast.

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