It's a scene becoming more familiar in southern Mecklenburg's Ballantyne:
A black-owned business, RushmoreDrive.com, hosted a stylish VIP party attended by black professionals at Ballantyne Village Theatre last week. In a bit of Hollywood glam, guests walked a mini red carpet for photos and interviews. Then they took in an early screening of “The Secret Life of Bees,” featuring black stars Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys.
The event comes on the heels of other cultural and business ventures – led or influenced by black people – happening more frequently in the once less-diverse areas of southern Mecklenburg County and western Union County.
Newcomers are leading this change, residents say, and among the beneficiaries are small-to-medium-size black businesses.
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“This is a place where you can create your own name, says Johnny Taylor, 39, president and CEO of RushmoreDrive.com, an Internet search engine based in Ballantyne. It delivers mainstream search results and specific ones tailored to the black community. “You're not dwarfed by the big businesses.”
The rise of black-owned businesses and social events runs counter to longtime images of these suburbs as overwhelmingly white. At the same time, the numbers of black residents in the south suburban areas are on the rise – and growing faster than the overall population.
“When I traveled (about 10 years ago) to SouthPark Mall and my neighborhood grocery store, located at the time in the Arboretum, I could count on one hand the African Americans I would see,” said John Reaves, 41, a corporate manager. “Today it is a completely different ballgame.”
Black residents spread south
In southern Mecklenburg, RushmoreDrive.com debuted this year, and the new Charlotte African-American Film Festival, also launched in Ballantyne, hit theater screens last month. In Lake Park in western Union County, Sharon Williams recently opened Image Salon and Spa, a multicultural salon serving all hair types – not exactly found on every corner in suburbia.
Then there are the black real-estate agents, insurance brokers, financial advisers and restaurant owners appearing with more frequency.
To be sure, the black population is small in areas like Ballantyne and western Union County. Still, census figures and estimates show it's growing:
Blacks number 3,914, or nearly 6.5 percent, of the estimated 60,401 residents in Ballantyne's 28277 ZIP code, according to 2008 estimates from the market research firm Claritas. That's up from 4.8 percent of the 35,236 population in 2000.
In the southern Mecklenburg 28278 ZIP code for Steele Creek, black residents number 1,605, or nearly 13.6 percent, out of 11,826. That's up from 9.1 percent of 6,402 residents in 2000.
The black population in the Weddington and Marvin ZIP code of 28104 now makes up 5.4 percent, or 1,570 out of 28,926. That's up from 4.6 percent of 16,414 total residents in 2000, according to Claritas.
Indian Trail's 28079 ZIP code has an estimated 1,723 black residents out of 28,924, or nearly 6 percent. That compares to almost 4.8 percent of 15,425 residents in 2000.
New meets old
Some say black newcomers are more focused on establishing their businesses or living in communities they love. They're less focused on adhering to the region's longtime residential patterns, where places like the University area, for example, have long been more diverse.
Trineka Greer, 33, knew she wanted to live “on the outskirts” for more peace and quiet when she moved to the Steele Creek area five years ago after living in Pennsylvania, Maryland and California.
“I am extremely accustomed … (to) not being in communities where the majority of people are black,” said Greer, vice president of development and communications for the Urban League of Central Carolinas.
Greer said some of that thinking went into picking a venue for the Charlotte African-American Film Festival (created by Charlotte newcomers Floyd Rance III and Stephanie Tavares-Rance). The Urban League helped organize a related panel discussion on socioeconomic issues of importance to black women. All wanted a “nice location, ample parking, that seems to be easy to get to,” said Greer.
Charlotte native Beatrice Thompson, a veteran Charlotte television and radio reporter and host, served as moderator for that panel discussion at Ballantyne Village Theatre.
“Being … a daughter of the South, I just chuckled,” said Thompson, 53. “This is more new black Charlotte taking root … because they are not privy to what old or established patterns or regions were about.”
Wil Brooks, one of the first tenants in Ballantyne Corporate Park, said job opportunities with banks and insurance institutions lead the way in building a stronger African American presence in these parts. He opened his State Farm Insurance agency in 1996.
Some wonder if the current economic climate will stifle this growth. Brooks said one key will be for black-owned businesses to serve a diverse market, including the area's growing Latino population.
“We can't build our business solely on African Americans,” said Brooks, 56, who advocates networking and has chaired groups through the Charlotte Chamber and YMCA . “We've got to appeal to the whole area.”
That's what Sharon Williams, 32, had in mind when she bought a longstanding hair and nail salon in Lake Park. She's continuing the same coloring, cuts, and perms as the earlier business for white clientele. But she's also in the hunt for stylists who can do braids, dreadlocks and other styles for black women.
Since attending Empire Beauty School in Matthews – where students learned “every type of hair there is to work on,” Williams, who is Portuguese and black, wanted a place to serve everyone.
“It's always my thing to have a very interracial setting.”