State politics were the main course at a real estate forecast luncheon Thursday, as longtime real estate developers said they’re still concerned about the effects of House Bill 2, North Carolina’s controversial bill limiting local nondiscrimination protections for LGBT individuals.
“I hope I’m wrong, but it could be Charlotte without the NFL, without the NBA, without the NCAA,” said Johnny Harris, chief executive of Lincoln Harris and an outspoken critic of the law, about what the city might look like in 20 years. He clarified that he doesn’t think it’s a likely outcome, but that people need to be thinking in those terms because the impact could be that serious.
“My suggestion that Charlotte without all those things is to make a point,” said Harris. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Efforts to repeal HB2 appear to be foundering in the state legislature. A compromise bill doesn’t have the votes to pass, its sponsor said this week, and Democrats failed in an effort to force an up-or-down repeal vote.
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Smoky Bissell, longtime head of real estate developer Bissell Cos., said he’s seen the impact of HB2 on North Carolina’s perception. He said a business associate of his was recently introduced to a group in New York as a resident of “The Great Hate State.”
“And what do we do? We go out and emphasize it more and more,” Bissell said of the abortive repeal efforts over the past few months.
Harris and Bissell are real estate veterans who both remain very active. They’ve been involved in some of the biggest real estate projects and transactions in Charlotte in recent years. Their dire tone on HB2 contrasted with the overall impression of real estate developers in the room, most of whom were upbeat and confident the current boom is set to continue.
Bissell issued a stark reminder that the health of the real estate sector is inextricably linked to the health of the overall economy – and something that hurts the local economy will eventually hurt real estate.
“You don’t eat if the Charlotte economy isn’t growing and people don’t buy or lease real estate,” said Bissell.
Earlier this month, Bissell completed the biggest real estate transaction in Charlotte’s history, selling his namesake company’s Ballantyne office buildings, hotels, land and golf course to Northwood Investors. The price: A record-setting $1.2 billion. Bissell, whose late wife was Harris’ sister, developed Ballantyne on what was once Harris family land.
Harris’ firm, Lincoln Harris, is behind some of the biggest development projects in the city right now. It’s developing a 30-story office tower on the former site of the Observer building on Stonewall Street, finishing up a second Capitol Towers office building in SouthPark, and developing the 194-acre Rea Farms mixed-use project on the site of the former Charlotte Golf Links course. Along with Crescent Communities, Lincoln Harris is developing the River District west of the airport, the biggest master-planned development in the city’s history.
The 2017 Charlotte CCIM Forecast was held at Carmel Country Club. Rolfe Neill, former publisher of the Charlotte Observer and another panelist, said divisive politics in North Carolina, fights over the flagship university in Chapel Hill, problems with Charlotte’s school system and racial and socioeconomic issues in Charlotte threaten to undo the state’s positive reputation.
“Overnight almost, it’s taken just a couple years for us to lose what took a hundred years to build,” said Neill. He and the other panelists called for the city’s business leaders to start getting more involved with the state legislature and forge links to help Charlotte.
“This group right here,” Neill said, “needs to start making friends for Charlotte.”