When Ray Eschert strolled down a wooded path after moving to Ballantyne in the mid-1980s, he met an unexpected neighbor: a wild boar.
Today, his fiercest encounter is the snarl of rush-hour traffic in Ballantyne, now an upscale community at Charlotte’s southernmost border.
Since that initial excursion, Eschert – the unofficial mayor of Ballantyne – has seen the area transform into a fast-growing suburb centered around 535-acre Ballantyne Corporate Park.
There is still nature to be found, of course.
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“People go to Trader Joe’s just so they can walk on the greenway,” Eschert says.
I recently checked in with Eschert at the Gallery Restaurant inside Ballantyne Hotel. His table overlooked the hotel’s manicured golf course that unfolded across the onetime hunting preserve of the family of prominent developer Johnny Harris.
Curious for Eschert’s take on the area’s sustained popularity, I also wanted his response to critics who dismiss its homogenous landscape of low-slung office buildings, shopping centers and sprawling suburban neighborhoods.
Eschert, 69, has heard it all.
He routinely fields questions from newcomers as part of his wife’s real estate business and he oversees the community-minded Ballantyne Breakfast Club. Since he started the group in 2001, its public meetings have drawn hundreds of residents when the focus is on controversial issues such as traffic and taxes.
Since then, the area’s housing and retail boom has continued, thanks to nearby high-performing public and private schools and proximity to Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Ballantyne, of course, technically belongs to the city of Charlotte.
But just as it has its own unofficial mayor, it also has its own unofficial town hall – the Morrison Family YMCA.
The expansive facility features a 10,000 square-foot fitness center, swimming pool and spray park, youth and teen centers and outdoor athletic fields. The Y hosts classes for adults and children, including at its arts center and teaching kitchen.
“It’s a sense of community in one place,” Eschert says.
Another popular attraction is biking and walking on Lower McAlpine Creek Greenway or the Four Mile Creek Greenway. Eschert typically shows prospective new home buyers the well-appointed Stonecrest and Blakeney shopping centers just 2.5 miles apart on Rea Road.
It’s easy to catch a movie. Ballantyne has two theaters: Regal Stonecrest at Piper Glen Stadium 22 and the Regal Ballantyne Village Stadium 5 theater.
The area’s public schools are a big draw for families, Eschert says. I’d agree. That was one of the main reasons my family moved here 13 years ago. Our daughter’s schools – Hawk Ridge Elementary, Community House Middle, and now Ardrey Kell High School – are among the state’s top performers.
Ballantyne’s sudden rise has made it an easy target for critics. Eschert acknowledges many of them.
Few cultural outlets? True. For that, you probably need to drive or take the light rail uptown.
“Those things will follow here as we grow,” Eschert says.
Few eclectic homes or shops? Also true. For that, you probably need to visit NoDa, Charlotte’s historic arts and entertainment district across the city.
Rush-hour traffic congestion on Johnston Road at I-485 is probably the one criticism Eschert takes most seriously. Area road improvements should help, but new construction of single family homes and apartments, along with booming subdivisions across the border in South Carolina, almost ensure this issue isn’t going away anytime soon.
But at its best, when your child can safely bicycle with friends to the Y while you enjoy the blooming cherry trees along Ballantyne Commons Parkway, it’s a place worth calling home.
Doug Miller, an editor at the Observer, has lived in the Ballantyne area for 13 years.