For 73 years, Charlotte’s historic Excelsior Club has survived economic downturns, racial upheaval and changing ownership.
Now it faces not only foreclosure, but more than $174,000 in unpaid taxes and an uncertain future.
On Wednesday, the owner and the deed holder pledged to do what they can to save the Excelsior, one of the country’s oldest African-American clubs and a landmark of black Charlotte.
“My family and I remain committed to doing all that we can do to preserve the club as an asset for the community, whether under our ownership or that of another,” owner James Ferguson told reporters outside the Beatties Ford Road club.
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And the deed holder, state Rep. Carla Cunningham, said it’s her intent “to do all I can” to preserve the club.
Their statements come a week after Cunningham began foreclosure proceedings against HKL Inc., Ferguson’s corporation. Ferguson bought the club in 2005 from Cunningham’s husband, the late Rep. Pete Cunningham, who died in 2010.
The Excelsior’s latest chapter involves Charlotte’s most prominent African-American attorney and a black legislator who says she’s trying to do right by her late husband.
“I’m disappointed and I’m hurt because I feel there’s a level of disrespect,” Cunningham told the Observer Wednesday. “I don’t know whether it was because I was a woman.… I feel some entities have taken advantage of me and I didn’t like it.”
Ferguson declined to take questions. But in a statement, he alluded to financial problems that he said began when the club closed last June for remodeling.
“Unfortunately the challenges of renovation and upgrading proved to be too great for the resources available,” he said. “With our doors closed, we were unable to meet the club’s financial obligations, including mortgages, taxes and other obligations.”
Records show HKL and the Excelsior face more than $166,000 in federal tax liens, and nearly $8,000 in unpaid Mecklenburg County taxes and judgments. Most of the unpaid taxes date from June 2015, a year before the club closed.
And in February 2016, four months before the club closed for remodeling, city inspectors found an extensive list of code violations, including a falling ceiling, unsafe wiring and structural problems. On Jan. 20, the club faces civil penalties of $12,800.
Cunningham suggested financial problems may have started earlier. She said she agreed in 2014 to lower HKL’s monthly mortgage payments from around $6,000 a month to $4,000. Since then, she said, payments have been late and calls sometimes not returned.
“It is unfortunate that a business decision of this nature had to be made in order to restore some stability back to the business and community of the property,” she said in a statement.
Taj Ferguson, James Ferguson’s son and the club’s general manager, declined comment.
Jimmie McKee transformed the art moderne building into the Excelsior in 1944. For years it catered to a black professional class who came to listen to entertainers such as Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. It became a mecca for politicians, white and black. Bill Clinton and Al Gore campaigned inside.
Ken Koontz, a former broadcaster, bought the Excelsior from McKee in 1984 and later sold it to Pete Cunningham. He said there are many reasons for its decline.
“A tremendous amount of it has to do with demographic and social change,” he said Wednesday. “Progress hurts sometimes, and this is a prime example. Once those (racial) barriers were removed, that demographic moved also.”
Lifestyles changed too. “When you came into the Excelsior Club, you took your hat off,” Koontz said. “You had some self respect when you came to the Excelsior.”
On Tuesday night, county commissioner Vilma Leake led her board to direct the Historic Landmarks Commission to pursue preservation of the Excelsior.
“Here we are in Black History Month,” she said. “And here we are almost losing history in the heart of the black community.”
Researcher Maria David contributed.