Jan 25, 2022 - Real Estate

Michael Marsicano’s last lap as Charlotte’s ‘most powerful’ person

Michael Marsicano

Michael Marsicano. Photo: Courtesy of Foundation For The Carolinas.

Michael Marsicano hesitated before moving to Charlotte.

This was 1989. He was a young phenom in the arts world. Ph.D. from Duke. Seven years as director of Durham’s arts council. A successful $2 million campaign for a new cultural center there.

From there he could move up in the arts world to Washington or New York, or maybe to follow a dream to be a university president. But along came an offer to run Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council.

“I agonized over the decision,” Marsicano told the Charlotte Observer three decades ago.

  • He was 33 then, and took the job.
  • He’s 66 now, still here, the CEO of a nearly $4 billion community foundation, and as he embarks on retirement he’s one of the most consequential Charlotteans of the last half-century.

“The bottom line at that point was that I saw so much potential in Charlotte. The surprise … was that I stayed,” he told me Monday. “That was never my thought. Charlotte was on the way to …” he said, intentionally leaving a blank there.

  • “But this place gets in your blood.”

Driving the news: Marsicano announced today that he’ll retire in January 2023 from the Foundation For The Carolinas, the organization he’s led since 1999 and built into the sixth-largest community foundation in the country.

Why it matters: His departure will shift the ground underneath this city built largely on philanthropy and fundraising.

  • Marsicano’s hauled in billions in contributions for organizations in the region in his 33 years in the city — first as the Arts & Science Council director from 1989-1999, then at FFTC from 1999 through now.
  • Charlotte magazine named him the city’s “most powerful person” in 2017. The Charlotte Business Journal recently gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the publication’s annual Most Admired CEO Awards program.

The big picture: His achievements could fill banquet rooms. He’s used his position to create social change across the city — first withholding money from arts organizations that associated with segregated country clubs, then holding firm in a controversy over “Angels in America” that received national attention, and later leading ambitious efforts to close the economic mobility gaps and build affordable housing.

  • Under his direction, the Foundation has risen from 35th-largest community foundation in terms of asset size to sixth.
  • Contributions to FFTC funds have totaled north of $5.9 billion since 1999.
  • Last year the Foundation had more than 3,000 fundholders give over $750 million, FFTC board chairman Barnes Hauptfuhrer said.

And it’s about more than money: The Foundation added civic leadership as a second mission during his time. Over the past decade, whenever Marsicano and the Foundation made an issue a priority, it became a community-wide priority.

  • When city council approved a $50 million bond for affordable housing, the Foundation led the effort to match it with corporate funds.

“It’s almost impossible to sum it up,” Hugh McColl, the former president and CEO of Bank of America, told me. “He’s been a tremendous voice in this city for good. You could argue it will take two people to replace him, one in the civic role and one to manage this great big business they created.”

What’s next: FFTC board chairman Hauptfuhrer says they’re looking for someone with similar qualifications, including “connected convener, a transformational leader, a savvy fundraiser, a creative and strategic decision-maker, a passionate person committed to shared values.”

  • Meanwhile, Marsicano will keep working (not unlike a certain basketball coach at his alma mater is doing). His main objective now, he says, is wrapping up a $250 million effort for the mayor’s racial equity initiative.
  • He’ll also help several older philanthropists decide what to do with estate gifts — which add up to about $1 billion, he said Friday.
  • He also hopes to see the century-old Carolina Theatre restored and re-opened before his last day.
  • Then he says he’ll turn his attention to writing books: One idea is leadership in the nonprofit sector, another is on fundraising, and then maybe a fiction book.

Backstory: A Long Island, New York native, Marsicano came South to college at Duke aiming to become a doctor.

Michael Marsicano in 2019 at Founders Hall
At a 2019 event for the inaugural class of 50 “Opportunity Champions” at Founders Hall. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

His mother was from Alabama and his father was a “Catholic Italian yankee,” as he puts it. His grandfather on his mother’s side didn’t approve of their relationship, and tried to keep them from dating.

  • They got married anyway, and two years later they had a son and named him Michael, after her father, in hopes of repairing that bridge with him.
  • It worked. Baby Michael brought the family back together.

They formed a family quartet. Michael played oboe, his brother played drums, their dad was on the trumpet and their mom played piano.

  • He kept playing music in college, English horn and oboe, and one year at Duke he took a trip to Vienna with the university’s wind symphony.
  • There he let his hair grow long and his beard sprout thick and decided he wanted to pursue a career in the arts instead.

He’d met his wife, Leslie, a Myers Park High graduate, during his senior year at Duke. Together they had five degrees and a 5-month-old son when they moved to Charlotte.

Almost immediately, he launched initiatives that seemed audacious compared to the old way of doing things.

That year, 1989, the ASC had a $22 million fundraising goal to build a performing arts center we now know as the Blumenthal. He upped the goal to $25 million.

  • This was at a time when Sen. Jesse Helms was trying to get Congress to defund the arts.
  • In eight months, Marsicano and the ASC rallied 60,000 contributors to raise the $25 million.
  • “Artistic expression may have taken it on the chin in recent months, but, as tens of thousands in Charlotte remind us, there is more than one side to this debate,” the Greensboro News & Record wrote.

As current mayor Vi Lyles told me yesterday: “He had access to people that could do more and maybe never got asked to do more. Maybe it was the status quo. He began to challenge that.”

Marsicano gathered his share of critics, too.

In one incident in the summer of 1995, during a debate over ASC funding, then-council member Pat McCrory jumped up and shouted in Marsicano’s face.

In 1996, when the Charlotte Repertory Theater brought the Pulitzer-winning play “Angels in America” to the city, conservatives and evangelicals protested its nude scenes and homosexual characters. The county commission would eventually vote to strip the ASC of $2.5 million in funding.

His 10-year anniversary party was a pirate-themed event where Charlotte’s top executives wore dangly earrings and roasted him — McColl joked that Marsicano was “the most manipulative person I’ve ever met,” and said that he admired how he kept raising more and more money from “people who hate the arts.”

Marsicano then knew it was time again for a career change. Again, he could’ve have taken offers to join university administrative leadership somewhere, or taken a national arts position.

  • And again, Charlotte pulled him back in.

On July 20, 1999, Marsicano announced he was leaving ASC and taking the top job at the Foundation.

  • Former Duke Energy CEO Bill Grigg called the decision “a bases-loaded home run.”

Charlotte mayor Vi Lyles is a former FFTC board member. She remembers how things changed after Marsicano arrived.

The Sonia and Isaac Luski Gallery in the lobby of the FFTC. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

In the hallway of the old Foundation offices, for instance, were portraits of former board members and prominent citizens — nearly all of them white men.

Lyles, who became Charlotte’s first Black woman mayor in 2017, remembers walking into the FFTC building on North Tryon for its grand opening in 2011 and seeing portraits of Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first Black mayor, and educator Jeanne Brayboy.

  • “That, to me, was significant,” Lyles said.

handful of white male executives —  McColl, First Union’s Ed Crutchfield, the Charlotte Observer’s Rolfe Neill, Duke Power’s Bill Lee and Belk’s John Belk — helped take the city from the 70th largest in the country in 1950 to a Top 25 city by the turn of the century.

When they retired or moved on, the question of who’d fill the void hovered over many boardroom meetings.

The answer was of course more complex than that — no small group people will ever wield such influence for so long again.

  • But if there was a bridge from the era of centralized leadership to one that’s more evenly distributed, it’s been Marsicano and the Foundation.

In 2014, a Harvard and Cal-Berkeley study showed Charlotte ranked 50th out of the top 50 U.S. cities in terms of upward mobility.

The study, now known simply as the “Chetty study” after lead researcher Raj Chetty, became a scarlet letter for a city with boosterism in its DNA.

  • But what was embarrassing for people in pressed pants Uptown was real life for thousands in poverty who struggled to provide a better life for their children.
  • Many read the study as an indication that one group had, intentionally or not, helped create the other.

The Foundation turned most of its attention to economic mobility after that. It formed a Leading on Opportunity Task Force, which published the “Leading on Opportunity report,” that broke down the troubles and potential solutions.

Nearly every civic-minded leader in town kept a copy on their desks, dog-eared to pages of relevance.

  • “Now we own it, and we build on it,” Mayor Lyles told me. “We may not have solved it yet, but at least we own the issue of the problem. … He’s clearly able to see the challenges and things but he’s also committed and optimistic about what we can accomplish and do.”

When I met with Marsicano shortly after the report published in 2017, he called it “The Marshall Plan for Charlotte.” And he was, as the mayor says, ever optimistic.

  • “Sometimes,” he said then, “you have to hit bottom to see the path upward.”

Over the past eight years, Marsicano’s done some of his mightiest fundraising work — raising $50 million to match the $50 million Housing Trust Fund bond, the $250 million for the racial equity initiative.

Michael Marsicano and David Dae-Lee Arrington - Photographer Geovanny Soto700
Michael Marsicano and David “Dae-Lee” Arrington. Photo by Geovanny Soto/Courtesy of Dae-Lee Arrington

But a new question has emerged: Can philanthropy — can any amount of money raised — actually cure the city of its troubles?

During that same eight-year stretch, the city saw two major uprisings for racial justice. First were the weeklong protests in September 2016 in the wake of a police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. Then, in the summer of 2020, the city joined the movement around the country after the murder of George Floyd.

In each case, white executives throughout town faced questions about equity and inclusion, and their fitness to lead diverse groups.

Local artist Dae-Lee Arrington, who launched a new interview series called “Bridge Builders” this month, recently lofted a question to Marsicano in an interview that will air soon.

“Do you feel as a white man you are well-equipped to understand the work that’s needed in these communities?” Arrington says in the interview, which I previewed earlier this month.

  • “Very provocative question,” Marsicano responds. “I might have thought at one time that I was well-equipped, but I think I’ve had some recent experiences that suggest I’m not as well-equipped as I should be. And that’s just an honest answer. I know all the nonprofits that are serving the populations that we’re talking about, but I don’t know how much I really know those populations.”

At a small gathering with reporters on Friday, I asked Marsicano if there’s anything he wishes he could’ve done differently.

He didn’t have an answer, but said, “I’ll think about your question. Perhaps come back to something more substantive.”

Foundation for the Carolinas
Photo: Ted Williams/Axios
  • He called just before lunch yesterday.

He talked about the COVID-19 response fund, which distributed $23.5 million in grants to small businesses and nonprofits during the pandemic.

What could he regret about that?

“When you’re running a foundation you’re inundated with requests … and there’s not much time to look for that which does not come to you,” he said. “When the COVID response fund came to be, we had a strategy to go deeper into neighborhoods to see if we could find people that were working on a real grassroots level closer to the ground.

“We discovered a lot of grassroots nonprofits that I wish I’d come in contact with earlier in my career.”

In a way, this was the downside of creating a foundation so large, and spinning a city into one where philanthropy is king. Of course there was no way the CEO of an organization that received gifts from 3,000 donors last year could connect with everyone.

As we talked about that, it reminded me of an old quote about him I’d found in the library’s archives. It was from Ralph Burgard, a nationally renowned arts advocate who wrote Charlotte’s 1975 Cultural Action Plan.

Burgard, who died in 2008, once said of Marsicano: “His weakness is linked to his compassion. He takes all the concerns of the world on his shoulders. What is his saving grace is humor. He is able to walk away and look at himself — and laugh at himself.”

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