After years of simmering discontent and growing traffic, a newly formed advocacy group is pushing for more spending on roads and other infrastructure in south Charlotte.
Called South Charlotte Partners, the nonprofit is an offshoot of the Ballantyne Breakfast Club, a civic discussion group founded in 2001. The group's eventual aim is to become a full-fledged "municipal service district," similar to Charlotte Center City Partners or University City Partners. Those groups receive funding from taxes on property in the areas they represent and advocate for those areas with local governments.
Ray Eschert, founder of the Ballantyne Breakfast Club, said the new group will have a heavy focus on transportation. In addition to new office space coming to Ballantyne Corporate Park, there are thousands of new apartments and houses planned or underway to the east, around Providence Road and Interstate 485 — not to mention the booming South Carolina towns just over the state line, many of which send commuters through south Charlotte daily.
"People have got to start looking at the serious nature of what's going on here," said Eschert. "We can't continue to have the economic engine we have here without some ways to move people."
Developers should expect South Charlotte Partners to be more involved — and more assertive about asking for changes or infrastructure investments — early in the rezoning process. And the group is contacting neighborhood associations to solicit input about residents' concerns and involvement.
The idea of south Charlotte having a bigger voice isn't new. In 2011 and 2012, talk of Ballantyne and its surrounding areas splitting away to form their own town roiled Charlotte, though nothing came of the effort. Eschert and the group's co-chairs — Victoria Nwasike, a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, and Tim Morgan, a former school board member — are adamant that they don't want to restart talk of breaking away.
"We're part of Charlotte. We're not interested in any talk of splitting off on our own," said Morgan.
For now, the group is operating on a volunteer basis and with support of corporate sponsors, the biggest by far of which is Northwood Office. The New York-based company bought Ballantyne Corporate Park — the 535-acre colossus of office buildings, hotels and a golf course that replaced rolling fields and woods — for almost $1.2 billion last year.
But Nwasike said they ultimately plan to seek the same status as the city's two other big "partners" groups, which represent University City, uptown and South End. Those groups receive funding from small additional taxes added to properties in their "service district" and use that money to hire staff.
Having a permanent staff and funding source means those groups can be more effective than volunteer organizations or groups that rely on fundraising, Nwasike said. They've modeled their approach on University City Partners, which had a budget of just over $752,000 last year.
"They're always present. They're always in the room. They're at rezonings," said Nwasike. "We need more of a focused voice."
She said the potential benefits will help convince property owners who are skeptical of an added tax. For example, the group helped lobby for $20 million to enlarge Bryant Farms Road, under consideration in the city's budget.
And like University City Partners, she said, the group could focus its taxing area (which would need City Council approval) on the area's business core, while extending representation to the residential areas.
Eschert said south Charlotte hasn't received enough attention to its roads and other needs because "the area has a reputation for having everything." The 28277 ZIP code, which covers the area between U.S. 521 and Providence Road, has a median household income of $98,186, well above Mecklenburg County's average of about $59,000. It's the third-highest earning ZIP code in the county.
And the way Ballantyne developed, by a single entity, the Bissell Companies, also meant the area received less attention for a long time, Eschert said.
"The area always benefited because it had a grandfather, and his name was Smoky Bissell," said Eschert, referring to the longtime head of the company. That changed with the acquisition of the corporate park by Northwood, a private equity group with global reach.
Northwood supports the new South Charlotte Partners organization, spokeswoman Christina Thigpen said.
"We have been very supportive of the effort to achieve greater advocacy for south Charlotte and are impressed with the leadership of South Charlotte Partners," she said. The company is a non-voting member on their board of advisers.
In addition to roads, they plan to lobby for more money in upcoming school bonds, greater public safety resources, more arts and cultural institutions, future transit corridors and improved parks. Eschert said the group's intent is to represent a wider swath of the city than Ballantyne.
"What happens on one end of Ardrey Kell Road affects the other end," he said.