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A tale of two cities: style vs. down home

That choking sound you hear out West is cosmopolitan San Francisco still trying to swallow the news that some redneck North Carolina town (is it Mayberry or Charlotte?) will be the new headquarters city for the country's new No. 1, coast-to-coast bank.

California _ the Golden State, the economic marvel, the future _ isn't supposed to lose its giant corporations to some crossroads of trucking back East. And liberal San Francisco, gateway to Asia, never anticipated becoming a distant banking colony to some Southern-twangin' town whose streets roll up at dark and where the Billy Graham Parkway is the main route into town from the airport.

But that is exactly what happened two weeks ago when Charlotte's NationsBank Corp. said it would merge in a deal valued at up to $85-billion with San Francisco's BankAmerica Corp. In the end, the deal was all NationsBank's. It got the headquarters (Charlotte), the chairman and chief executive officer (Hugh McColl) and a majority of directors (11 to nine) on the board of what will be the new, $570-billion-asset BankAmerica.

As Floridians know all too well since NationsBank gobbled up this state's Barnett Banks, welcome aboard, San Francisco. Welcome to the banking colonies of the '90s where big economic decisions are controlled by Charlotte.

To San Francisco, the BankAmerica-NationsBank deal is a bitter pill. Nobody wrote a tune called I Left My Heart . . .in Charlotte. Who would swap the noisy Charlotte Motor Speedway for the sublime Golden Gate Bridge?

Strange bedfellows, indeed. The combination of San Francisco's BankAmerica and Charlotte's NationsBank offers a rare peek inside a bona fide cultural clash of West Coast vs. Carolina Piedmont, of a free-wheeling Pacific world meeting a more fundamentalist turf built on tobacco farming and insecurities lingering from the Civil War. The good news is that such regional differences still exist. The bad news is the country's biggest bank merger has a tough task ahead as it blends two very different institutions into one with 180,000 people working together.

Armed with maps, a glossary of Southern terms and an elitist attitude, San Francisco's media has descended on Charlotte since the merger with nouveau riche NationsBank was unveiled to poke fun at the locals and warn their hip West Coast readers: If San Francisco is from Venus, Charlotte is from Mars.

Then the California press got personal.

"Why is BofA moving its headquarters from glorious San Francisco to soulless Charlotte after its merger with NationsBank?" demanded San Francisco Examiner columnist Rob Morse.

What about all these grits in Charlotte, steamed San Francisco Chronicle reporter Steve Rubenstein. "A lot of people were eating grits in the atrium of NationsBank, the noxious 60-story monstrosity that lords over downtown Charlotte," he wrote.

Why do so many folks go to the Motor Speedway on non-race days to sit in the stands? To watch dirt being moved, deadpanned the San Francisco press.

"The BankAmerica merger is so frightening on so many levels that it's hard to grasp," moaned Chronicle columnist Ken Garcia. "The new twin cities: San Francisco/Charlotte," he added. "What a concept: pickled pigs' feet _ the San Francisco treat."

Nor did NationsBank CEO McColl, whose fanatical drive put BankAmerica in his pocket, escape California barbs. McColl is "nearly as godlike in these parts as stock car driver Richard Petty," the Chronicle sniffed. Or this: "McColl, who likes ordinary people as much as he likes ordinary people to know he likes them."

Charlotte's attempts to dress up its downtown streets fared no better from the Chronicle. "In between the banks and hotels, Charlotte is building silly public fountains and tossing about even sillier sculptures. NationsBank donated one at the town's major intersection that looks like a giant bronze disc from a food processor."

Actually, it looks more like a giant Frisbee, but why argue?

Finally, the San Francisco press unleashed its biggest blow at Charlotte. The North Carolina city is _ ugh . . . affordable. "The average price of a home sold in Charlotte in 1996 was $141,003, according to Kristen Moseley of Allen Tate Realty," stated a San Francisco columnist who huffed: "That's a wide garage here."

Even McColl joked in his patrician drawl about how he plans to buy a house in San Francisco _ if he finds one he can afford. Tweaked the Chronicle: "McColl will buy a house in San Francisco, to be nice, and (BankAmerica CEO David) Coulter will buy a house in Charlotte, because he will be spending a lot of time in Charlotte." McColl will be Coulter's boss.

Truth is, BankAmerica was caught napping. While NationsBank absorbed ever-bigger acquisitions year after year, BankAmerica snoozed with a favorable stock price and an assumption it would always be a player because it controlled a big piece of the country's coveted banking market: California.

When NationsBank and all its momentum called, BankAmerica folded, saying it could compete better in the future by being part of a bigger banking company. That, of course, is the same excuse Florida's Barnett Banks used last fall when it, too, surrendered to a NationsBank takeover.

To be sure, the response of Charlotte's media to San Francisco's assault of cliches on NationsBank's hometown has been patient and subdued _ as only the press on the side of the winner can be.

"To some, Southern accents still translate as stock car racing, gay bashing, backward attitudes and all the stereotypes that Charlotte's power brokers have tried to bury in the last generation as they've put the city on the map as a world banking center, airline hub and professional sports town," an Observer business reporter wrote. One area county commissioner last year said he wanted to "shove gays off the planet," the reporter added.

That's one attitude unlikely to warm the hearts in San Francisco. In a gesture to gays, McColl quickly agreed after the proposed merger to extend those "domestic partner" benefits offered by BankAmerica to NationsBank employees, meaning that partners get the same benefits as spouses enjoy.

"The pundits had a fun week comparing Charlotte with San Francisco, but in truth both cities are fortunate children of the new economy," wrote Charlotte Observer business editor Jon Talton in a recent Solomon-like column.

"Charlotte's newness as a large city accounts for the legitimate unease about the headquarters," Talton acknowledged, before delivering the clincher. "San Francisco will do just fine as a branch operation of the new (Charlotte-based) BankAmerica."