A little more than a decade ago, it became clear to Rick Howard that the region he’d long called home was missing something.As CEO of a small manufacturing company, he heard from out-of-town executives who were planning visits to the Lake Norman area and wanted to stay at a lakefront hotel. Trouble is, there were noneHe saw miles of beautiful lakefront that were inaccessible to most people except those who owned homes. And time after time, he watched kids who grew up near the lake leave the area as soon as they graduated from high school or college.From those impressions, a dream emerged: Rick and his son, Brad, decided they wanted to create “a destination location for this community.”This summer, their dream is starting to materialize as Langtree at the Lake—the largest mixed-use development ever planned for the Lake Norman region—hits a key milestone. With the opening of the first apartments, residents will begin moving in.The ambitious project is now beginning to take shape in Mooresville, just west of Interstate 77 at exit 31. Eventually, Rick and Brad predict, the $1.5 billion community will occupy more than 300 acres and thousands will live, work, and play there.The Howards envision a place where residents, visitors, and guests at the planned convention hotel will stroll along miles of lakefront trails and boardwalk. A place where they’ll be able to enjoy the sight of a 12-foot waterfall, the sounds of outdoor concerts, and the tastes of dishes prepared by some of the Charlotte region’s finest restaurants. Tired of the hodgepodge development that they have seen up and down I-77, Rick and Brad have been part of a development team spearheaded by RL West that has aimed for something more. “We want something that will make people say, ‘Wow! They planned this,’” Rick says.
‘I didn’t know any better’ More than almost anyone, Rick Howard can appreciate the changes that have transformed the lake region over the past 50 years. He was growing up in Mount Mourne in the early 1960s when his parents decided to buy 3 acres on the Langtree peninsula for a summer home. They paid $300 an acre for property that would likely cost them more than $500,000 an acre today. It was just before Duke Power began to flood the region to create Lake Norman, and Rick remembers his childhood confusion as his parents had a pier built on dry land. “I looked out and saw nothing but miles of stumps,” Rick says. As the lake filled in the following year, it all began to make sense. Rick soon began exploring much of the lake in his flat-bottom boat. Often at night, he’d see no more than 10 or 15 lights along the shore.Years later, Rick was CEO of Mooresville manufacturing company Carolina Component Concepts. His only child, Brad, was running the plant by day and studying marketing at UNCC by night.As Rick saw more of his competitors slash their costs by moving their operations to Mexico, he began to entertain his dream.“I said, ‘We need to create a sense of community within a community. We need to create something that will enable people to stay here after they graduate from school.’ We knew in time, if we could acquire enough land, we could create this.”Rick bought his first 8 acres almost 10 years ago. One by one, he negotiated with other residents to acquire about 400 acres along both sides of the interstate just north of Davidson. Many of the sellers were friends and neighbors, and the purchase contracts were just two pages long—“basically handshake deals.” “I was not a developer,” he says. “That worked for me rather than against me. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas. I didn’t know any better.”Barry Rigby, executive vice president of Langtree project developer RL West, says that if Rick Howard had not assembled all that land, creating Langtree would have been impossible.“I always kid Rick: ‘It’s your first development, and you do a $1 billion development,’” Rigby says.Soon, Brad teamed up with Rick on the project. “I’m the realist,” says Brad, 36.“I’m the one who believes in the impossible,” says Rick, 60. “And [the partnership] works really well.”From the start, Brad says, it was clear the location was a slam dunk. It was close to the lake, to the interstate, to a hospital, and to the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company—Lowe’s Inc.“It was really hard to mess that up,” Brad says.But there was one thing the Howards could not control: the economy. In 2007, the recession dried up credit, leaving the pair without the money they needed to achieve their goals. So they began searching for a well-heeled partner who shared their vision—a process that took four years.In 2011, the Howards, operating as Langtree Group, teamed up with RL West, an Ohio-based real estate development company. The Howards retained minority ownership in the project, and have kept their full attention on it. ‘Charlotte’s north Ballantyne’ Today, it has all begun to take shape.The project’s first phase—300 apartments, 52,000 square feet of retail space and a 15,000-square-foot clubhouse—is scheduled to open this summer and be completed by December.Among the stores and restaurants coming: Sky Café & Gelato, Hibachi Express and Sushi, Novanta Pizzeria, Yogurt City, Bacchus’ Wine and Tapas, Mon Chateau cocktail lounge, Beth and Co., Lipp Boutique, and Fab’rik Boutique.Work is scheduled to begin this year on a 12-story building that will house a Doubletree convention hotel. The tower—which will also feature stores, offices, high-end condos and a rooftop bar and restaurant—has been dubbed the Ethosphere, and will be built so that the floors can be converted into other uses as tenants change. Construction is scheduled to last about 22 months.While the scope of construction at Langtree will be enormous, it won’t be all bricks, wood, and concrete. The developers will preserve half of their property for open space—including a 750-seat outdoor amphitheater—and will set their buildings 100 feet from the water.If all goes as planned, the project will eventually generate more than 20 percent of Iredell County’s tax revenue. It will employ thousands. And it will be larger than any N.C. development north of Charlotte.“Langtree will be Charlotte’s north Ballantyne,” Brad says. “But better because it has a lake.”“From Day 1, that’s been the vision—to open Lake Norman to the general public, not just those who live along the lake,” says Rick. “This is a rare opportunity to do that.”