Shop till you drop? Or not?
Developers told town officials last week that construction plans are on hold for at least five months on The Bridges at Mint Hill, the much-discussed retail center first announced in 2005.
And as word got out late last week, some Mint Hill residents and leaders wondered whether the upscale shopping center – planned with an open-air design and featuring a hotel and movie theater – may be on long-term hold, given the difficult economy. Retailers around the country are closing or putting expansion plans on hold as shoppers spend less.
Town Mayor Ted Biggers said developers told him they need more time to complete planning work before continuing construction at the site, at the intersection of Lawyers Road and Interstate 485.
Extensive clearing and grading is the only construction work done so far. Developers have halted grading, saying roadway design and right-of-way acquisition is lagging behind construction.
Biggers is confident the complex will be built. But the developers, Chicago-based General Growth Properties and Charlotte's Childress Klein Properties, aren't talking.
Nicole Spreck, spokeswoman for General Growth Properties, said the company won't discuss the project until after its earnings call at the end of July, when the publicly owned company discusses its financial results for the reporting period.
“Being a public company, it would be a breach of policy for us to discuss The Bridges at Mint Hill right now,” Spreck said.
Design, or finances?
But that didn't stop others from talking.
Billy Kiser, owner of Penny's Place restaurant in Mint Hill, says he expects it will be a while until the mall is built and that a large part of that time frame depends on November's election.
“In this economy, where retail is down…I think it will be a couple more years down the road until anything is done,” Kiser said. “I think the developers will wait until after the election to see what happens.”
The 215-acre project, Mint Hill's biggest retail development, has faced delays before. The center would be built on both banks of Goose Creek – home to the Carolina heelsplitter, an endangered mussel. Developers had planned a design with bridges spanning the creek to control stormwater and protect the waters, but environmentalists have been unconvinced.
Another design glitch is linked to the widening of Lawyers Road, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation.
A culvert under Lawyers Road needs to be extended as part of the road widening but developers want to build a bridge instead, according to Jen Thompson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. Both the developers and the transportation department are still negotiating, Thompson said.
Thompson said a bridge would require more expensive state maintenance. And developers haven't proved that a bridge is safe for the creek.
“They have to show us a good-faith effort that they would work with resource agencies to show that it would be environmentally safe,” Thompson said Friday.
It was unclear Friday if that proposed bridge is part of the original design of the shopping center.
Seeking silver linings
Many say this latest delay may be good for Mint Hill.
Kiser, the restaurant owner, said the holdup may help redirect more development downtown instead. “I think this is really going to help the downtown (N.C.) 51 corridor,” he said.
Town manager Brian Welch said Mint Hill wasn't banking on revenue from the mall right away to pay for other planned projects around town, such as the new town hall the board of commissioners recently approved. The board already set aside $3 million of the town's fund balance for the new town hall, Welch said.
“Based on current estimates, we should be able to service the debt for four years, and that should be more than enough to get past this delay” with the shopping center, Welch said.
Since the shopping center was announced three years ago, other developers have launched their own projects, including several high-end residential developments with homes in the million-dollar range. But Welch doesn't expect these projects to stop with word of the shopping center delay.
“I'm not a real estate guy, but I've always been told that it's the rooftops that drive the demand for commercial services and not the other way around,” Welch said. “Those guys wait on the housing before adding retail.”
Belk, one of three planned anchors, is still committed to be a part of the retail center, spokesman Steve Pernotto said last week.
In the meantime, Welch said developers have told him that grass will be planted over the graded area to stabilize the soil and prevent runoff until grading resumes.
Mint Hill resident Lela Martin says she's a little disappointed in the delay but has faith that the mall will still come.
“I'm excited about it coming. … Bring it on!”