Some “Other” Wall Streets Embarrassed
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Bart Boyer’s financial-planning firm, located at 6 Wall St. here, is a few doors from a custom sandal shop, bead store, New Age church and three restaurants that buy ingredients from local farms.
It is a long way from the Wall Street that has become synonymous to many Americans with reckless greed and pushing the economy off a cliff.
“They’ve caused us a lot of distress, ruined a lot of lives,” says Mr. Boyer, chairman and chief executive of Parsec Financial Management Inc. In the first two months of 2009, the firm’s revenue fell 22% from a year earlier.
Anger over runaway trading, financial engineering and compensation by financial companies has a strong resonance along at least 955 country roads, suburban streets and downtown blocks named Wall Street or something close to that. From Abilene, Texas, to south Los Angeles to Zeeland, Mich., these residents and business are wrestling both with the recession and the ignominy of a truly fallen address. (Never mind that most Wall Street financial firms aren’t literally located on Wall Street, nor is The Wall Street Journal.)
“My father’s always joked: ‘My daughter works on Wall Street,'” says Robin Campbell, owner of Dolce Vita, an eclectic boutique halfway on Asheville’s Wall Street that is stocked with handbags, earrings and wine. “Now he doesn’t joke about that.”
On Wall Streets throughout the country, the dominant view is that their New York cousins deserve their ruined reputation.
“If I ran this restaurant like the bankers ran their business, I would no longer have a job,” says Celinda Knight, manager of the Wall Street Bar & Grill, on East Wall Street in Midland, Texas, childhood home of former President George W. Bush.
“They have no idea what’s going on on the ground,” says Ken Olson, principal of Poko Partners, which has a real-estate project under way to revitalize Norwalk, Conn.’s Wall Street, located in a depressed downtown area. “These are people I don’t know, and that’s part of the problem.”
As for more than $165 million in payouts to an American International Group Inc. unit that crippled the insurer, “it’s absolutely beyond disgusting,” says Mr. Boyer, whose firm’s 1,000 clients include doctors and retirees. Parsec’s assets shrank to $749 million at the end of 2008 from slightly more than $1 billion a year earlier.
Last month, Mr. Boyer sent a letter to President Barack Obama suggesting limits on compensation for bank executives.
Asheville’s Wall Street is a one-way, two-block-long lane in the heart of this small city (pop. 73,875) in the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 690 miles by car from New York. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Asheville flourished as the Vanderbilts, Henry Ford and other luminaries flocked here for its ostensibly curative mountain air. Enduring signs of that heyday include George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate, now a popular tourist attraction and winery.
Named for a stone wall built to retain a hill in the bustling center of town, the Wall Street in Asheville began as a delivery alley. It evolved into an artery of offices, jewelry stores and other small shops. A Flatiron Building, shaped just like the one in Manhattan, housed offices and shops at one end of the street.
The Great Depression brought an abrupt halt to Asheville’s early boom. A new shopping mall in the 1970s further clobbered downtown. When Barry Olen bought an annex to the Flatiron building in 1978, Wall Street and nearby areas were blighted, full of “sleazy bars and pool halls,” he recalls.
Mr. Olen, who believes AIG employees should turn over their bonuses to “people who lost money from their efforts,” helped gradually transform Wall Street into a bohemian enclave and gathering spot for artists, retired baby boomers and other refugees of faster-moving America.
In 1987, Mr. Boyer moved Parsec from a home office to 6 Wall St., several doors down from shops owned by Mr. Olen and his wife. The street name was part of the attraction to the squat 1892 building. “We thought it would be sort of cute to be on little Wall Street,” Mr. Boyer says.
Parsec grew to 29 employees and has clients in 40 U.S. states. In contrast to former Merrill Lynch & Co. Chairman John Thain’s controversial office renovations, Mr. Boyer says he never spent more than $5,000 decorating his own office.
We shampoo the carpet once in a while,” he notes.
“This is the real Wall Street, right here … the one that’s based in reality and has some foundation in sanity,” says chef Mark Rosenstein, sharpening knives and slicing onions in the Market Place, a restaurant he moved into a 5,000-square-foot renovated space in 1990.
When Mr. Rosenstein hands out his business card while traveling, he is quick to explain that his address is “not quite like ‘that’ Wall Street.” AIG’s bonuses are “unconscionable” and “reward failure,” he adds.
As much as people on “other” Wall Streets want to distance themselves from the one known around the world, they can’t escape its economic reach. In January, Asheville’s unemployment rate hit 8.7%, up from 4.4% a year earlier. Tourism, the area’s most important business, is slowing. Once-red-hot mountain real-estate developments are dormant.
At the Market Place, revenue is down about 25% from a year ago. Mr. Rosenstein has given up his salary and offers a three-course meal for the cut-rate price of $29.
On a recent Saturday morning, Early Girl Eatery owner John Stehling said he and his wife had to cut employee hours and took home less than $30,000 last year after closing another restaurant they owned.
“I’m slavin’ away … just to make ends meet,” he says.