A quarter-century ago, Huntersville was still more of a traditional small town than the booming New South suburb it is today.
In 1990, Davidson’s 4,000 residents still topped Huntersville’s population by 1,000. But Huntersville’s wide expanses of rolling farmland and forest made it ripe for residential development as bank mergers fueled Charlotte’s financial and population explosion.
Huntersville’s population now tops 50,000 (compared to 11,000 in Davidson and 25,000 in neighboring Cornelius) and, as the town embarks on the next phase in its effort to awaken its still sleepy downtown, those leading that effort say they have the advantage of a virtually blank canvass on which to work, much like the residential developers did in making Huntersville one of North Carolina’s fastest-growing municipalities.
“We don’t have an inventory of old buildings that are going to get reused like your Statesvilles and your Mooresvilles and your Concords,” said Huntersville Planning Director Jack Simoneau. “It’s not going to be the renovation work. It’s going to be development as opposed to redevelopment.”
Older buildings have a traditional feel that can’t be fully replicated in the design and architecture of new structures, Simoneau conceded.
“(But) you’ve got to make it an opportunity,” he added. “You’re not constrained, if you will, to having to retrofit something that’s existing.”
Where’s your downtown?
Despite significantly smaller populations, the downtowns in Statesville (25,000 residents), Mooresville (34,000) and Davidson dwarf what was once Huntersville’s central business district. That’s because while it once was a center of commerce tied largely to local mills and its former railroad station, Huntersville’s downtown never rivaled those in many nearby municipalities.
“You’re at (more than 50,000) people and you say, ‘Where’s your downtown?’” Simoneau said. “Well, it never was a big downtown. There was just a little collection of little buildings.”
The town is ready to add big buildings. It is buying 2 acres of prime land that it will market to developers to build condos, restaurants and shops.
The town board unanimously agreed Oct. 19 to pay $625,000 from the town’s fund balance for five bank-owned parcels that have been in foreclosure since the recession. Much of the acreage is a grassy area that fronts Old Statesville Road (N.C. 115) outside the Huntersville Town Center building, which houses Discovery Place Kids and town offices.
Town officials noted that the land is “shovel-ready” for development, which means no retrofitting of aging buildings to meet modern needs. But that approach offers its own set of challenges, conceded Town Manager Greg Ferguson.
For the owner of a smaller, older building, “He’s got almost nothing (invested) in it,” Ferguson explained. “It depreciated long ago. It probably doesn’t look that great on the inside. But retrofitting it is a modest proposition.”
The same building owner also will ask lower rent, which is an advantage to small businesses, especially those who are just starting out.
“It gives that struggling entrepreneur an easier, lower barrier into the market,” Ferguson said.
With bigger projects such as what the town has planned, developers have more to prove when they seek financing.
“Your rent roll also has got to be higher,” Ferguson added. “And so you have to go after the more established business, which means you’ve either got to find the national chain, or you go to someone (locally) who’s very successful already, like (Davidson’s) Summit Coffee, and say, ‘Do you want to be in Huntersville, too?’”
Town leaders are banking on their belief that Huntersville’s downtown will catch up with its population, and they pointed south of the Carolina border in contrasting what they see as their town’s advantages.
“We’ve got what all these dying towns in South Carolina would like, and that’s the population and the growth and the desire,” Simoneau said. “These small towns have these wonderful downtowns but they just don’t have the populations to support them. So we just have to look at that as, there’s an opportunity for new development here.”
That’s one reason Huntersville continues to aggressively recruit large employers to the area, Ferguson added.
“In South Carolina, when you get your degree from (the University of South Carolina), you don’t go back home,” he said. “You’re coming to Charlotte, or staying Columbia.”
“Or, coming to downtown Huntersville,” Simoneau added.
John Deem is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.