December 2014

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    N.C. senator Jeff Tarte
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    Bill Thunberg, executive director of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission.
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    Bill Russell, CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce.

The Big Four

By Sam Boykin | Photography by Rob Cheney

Posted: Monday, Jan. 06, 2014

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Population

The region’s population growth is the biggest factor driving the other main issues that will impact Lake Norman in 2014 and beyond. According to The Centralina Council of Governments, a 14-county region of the Carolinas is expected to see an influx of more than 1.8 million people over the next 40 years—increasing the current population of 2.4 million by more than half. Moreover, Mecklenburg County, which is currently home to about 970,000 people, is expected to see its population increase by 70 percent. This adds to the already dramatic growth the communities around Lake Norman have experienced over the past half-century. Since the lake was created in 1963, the area has grown from a sparsely populated cluster of towns to a bustling destination of nearly 180,000 residents.

“The question is what do we do about it,” says Davidson Mayor John Woods. “We’ve got to proactively figure out how to respond. All this growth we continue to absorb is going to impact transportation, education, housing, and quality of life. On the one hand it’s a nice problem to have—this is a growing, profitable community. But if left unplanned and cared for, this kind of growth will eat us alive.”

Much of the immediate population growth is expected to happen around Huntersville, says Jeff Tarte, former Cornelius mayor and now N.C. senator. This is due to both the town’s proximity to Charlotte and the fact that is has more available land compared to neighboring communities such as Cornelius and Davidson. “Huntersville has 60 square miles of town,” Tarte says. “That’s where residential growth is going to happen. Huntersville could easily double in size.”

Huntersville Major Jill Swain says she knows growth is coming her way, and that improving local infrastructure is critical, but she also stresses that growth in one Lake Norman community impacts the entire area. “The fact that Huntersville has areas that can be developed does not mean only Huntersville benefits from that,” she says. “Other communities, especially Cornelius and Davidson, will benefit as more people live, shop, and work here and bring economic development opportunities with them.”

Economic Development

While Lake Norman certainly felt the impact of the Great Recession, it fared better than many other communities and is now focused on new business opportunities as the economy recovers.

From a regional standpoint, organizations like the Lake Norman Regional Economic Development Corporation and The Mooresville South Iredell Economic Development Corporation work towards growing the business community and attracting capital investment and creating jobs.

The area is already home to several Fortune 500 companies, such as Lowe’s and Ingersoll-Rand, and LNREDC executive director Ryan McDaniels points to new business developments, such as Poly-Tech Industrial. The plastics and engineering company recently opened a 32,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Huntersville.

Elsewhere, Mooresville Mayor Miles Atkins says that in 2014 the first tenants are expected to move into the new Project Prosperity park, a 476-acre industrial complex in north Mooresville developed by the South Iredell Community Development Corp.

“We know companies are looking to relocate here, and this gives us more available land where they can build,” says Atkins.

There’s also lots of opportunity for infill projects in historic downtown Mooresville, Atkins says, and he’s working towards improving downtown street connectivity to better accommodate new businesses, from retail and restaurants to apartments.

Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain also says she wants to revitalize the downtown area to spur business growth. Moreover, Swain, who last summer traveled to China to meet with leaders of the Asian Manufacturers’ Association about bringing their businesses to the Lake Norman area, plans to continue to embrace international corporations. “It’s a great way to diversify our tax base and bring new cultures to the area,” she says.

Swain says she also hopes to see more activity with Huntersville Connection, a monthly forum that provides networking, marketing, and sales opportunities for local businesses. “There are many people in the area with great business ideas,” she says. “The more we can connect these people and promote their ideas the better we all are.”

Even Davidson, which has historically limited and carefully controlled any kind of growth or development, is now getting more aggressive in terms of economic development. “Attracting more businesses is one of our highest priorities,” says Davidson Mayor John Woods. “In the last two years we’ve added 51 new businesses in Davidson, from mom and pop operations to MSC Industrial Direct.” Woods also points to Carolinas HealthCare’s new Behavioral Health Hospital, which is scheduled to open in Davidson this spring and bring about 150 new jobs.

Transportation

It’s going to get worse before it gets better. That’s the hard reality Lake Norman residents face when it comes to area roads, interstates, and congestion. The good news is that work on various transportation projects is scheduled to start in 2014, although based on the often contentious process that led up to these projects, it’s clear not everyone is happy about what’s in store.

The biggest and most controversial project is the widening of Interstate 77. According to Bill Thunberg, executive director of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, construction is expected to start this summer on heavily congested I-77.

As proposed by The N.C. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, plans call for adding two high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on both northbound and southbound I-77 between the Brookshire Freeway (Exit 11) and Exit 28 in Cornelius. HOT lanes allow free use for carpoolers (three passengers or greater), buses, and motorcyclists, while allowing other drivers into the HOT lane for a fee. The fee would be higher during peak traffic periods, and lower when it’s less congested. One HOT lane in each direction would continue between Exit 28 and Exit 36. The cost of the HOT lane project is estimated to be about $550 million, and it’s expected to be completed by late 2017, says Thunberg.

“I can’t think of anything that will be more impactful to this region than the widening of I-77,” says Bill Russell, CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce. “The interstate cuts through the heart of most Lake Norman communities.”

Associated transportation projects include building an Exit 27 interchange along I-77 to relieve some of the congestion heading into Cornelius, as well as adding a diverging-diamond interchange at Exit 28, a heavily traveled interchange that leads to downtown Cornelius and several subdivisions and retail centers.

The Exit 28 diverging-diamond project is expected to cost about $6.2 million, with work starting early this year and finishing by 2015. “It’s going to be challenge for about 18 months during construction,” Russell says of the exit 28 project. “But once it’s done, it’s going to look fabulous.”

The NCDOT is also working on several intersection improvements along the Highway 150 and N.C. 73 corridors, as well as adding a lane in each direction of N.C. 150 from Mooresville to N.C. 16 in Catawba County.

Also on the horizon is the CATS Red Line North Corridor Commuter Rail project. As proposed, the commuter rail would operate along 30 miles of existing Norfolk Southern rail from uptown Charlotte to just south of Mooresville. But the estimated $460 million project faces many hurdles, including finding financing sources.

“The Red Line is critical,” says Davidson Mayor John Woods. “We’ve got to expand beyond cars and roads. Davidson, Mooresville, Huntersville, and Cornelius have all planned their development opportunities for the last 10 years around that rail corridor. It will help us create better-designed communities with more open space and spur economic opportunities.”

Housing

As Lake Norman recovers from the recession and banks are once again lending money, residential development is likely to see a big spike—including both new neighborhoods as well communities that stalled during the economic downturn. Langtree at the Lake in Mooresville is perhaps the most obvious example of this renewed housing development. The 400-acre mixed-use project, which came to a halt in 2007, recently unveiled 300 luxury apartments.

Elsewhere in Mooresville, Venue, a stalled luxury apartment complex off Highway 21, recently had its grand opening. Moreover, several communities along Morrison Plantation Parkway are starting construction, including the 281-apartment The Grove at Morrison Plantation, which is scheduled to open this summer. And nearby, along N.C. 150, Charlotte developer Charter Properties is developing Piedmont Pointe Apartments, which will have 260 apartments along with a small retail center. Finally, Lennar Corp. is expected to start building in Morrison Plantation this year a 90-townhome community called The Cove at Morrison Plantation, as well as about 35 single-family homes in the Watersedge at Morrison Plantation community.

In Huntersville, the Vermillion neighborhood is also showing momentum. Developer Nate Bowman broke ground at the mixed-use community in 1998, but then development paused when the proposed commuter rail never materialized and then the recession hit. While Bowman says construction for new homes is still nowhere near 2007 levels, he expects to see about 100 single-family homes built in Vermillion in 2014, about the same as last year. Bryton, another mixed-use community in Huntersville, is also expected to take off in 2014, with the potential of up to 3,000 single- and multi-family homes along with retail, office, and industrial space.

In Davidson, developer Lat Purser and Associates has proposed building a four-story development along Jetton Street with about 160 apartments as well as retails shops and restaurant.

Another project people are watching carefully is the old Augustalee site in Cornelius, which was one of the many causalities of the recession. Executives with the Concord marketing firm ACN Inc. bought the 104-acre site off Westmoreland Road in 2012, and have since hired the Charlotte firm Lincoln Harris to help develop and market the property. Although officials involved with the project aren’t commenting about specific plans, newly elected Cornelius Mayor Chuck Travis says the project hinges on the construction of a new exit 27 interchange at Westmoreland Road, which he hopes can be a part of the I-77 HOT lanes widening project. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for Cornelius and will provide a great new gateway to our town.”

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