4 ways the Belks shaped Charlotte

Former Mayor John Belk in front of the Queen Charlotte fountain at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in 1997. As mayor in the 1970s, Belk fought for airport bonds to expand existing facilities and add a terminal. Voters approved the bonds in 1978.
Former Mayor John Belk in front of the Queen Charlotte fountain at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in 1997. As mayor in the 1970s, Belk fought for airport bonds to expand existing facilities and add a terminal. Voters approved the bonds in 1978. PATRICK SCHNEIDER

We’re all familiar with the John Belk Freeway, the Belk Theater and Thursday night’s Belk College Football Kickoff game. But the Belk family’s impact on Charlotte runs far deeper than its name sometimes suggests.

If you’re new to Charlotte, for example, you might not know that the son of the department store chain’s founder helped build SouthPark, or that the family helped establish UNC Charlotte. Some of the family’s biggest contributions don’t always bear the Belk name.

Belk announced last week that it will sell itself to New York-based private equity firm Sycamore Partners for $3 billion. The sale will shift ownership from the hands of the family that has controlled it for 127 years, but executives said the community can expect the same level of involvement even after the sale.

“One of our six core values is be involved in the community. We don’t have that there because it makes people feel good; we have it there because it’s a good business strategy,” Chief Executive Officer Tim Belk told the Observer recently. “Being involved in the community helps you understand customers better.”

Besides the millions of dollars the family and its foundation have donated to Presbyterian churches and educational facilities across North Carolina, “Belk” for many locals is synonymous with Charlotte, and the family’s philanthropy over the years has helped shape the region and power its growth.

“The physical fabric of our city is interwoven with the legacy of Belk,” said Tom Hanchett, a Charlotte historian.

Here are four perhaps lesser-known ways the Belks have helped shape Charlotte.

1. SouthPark

In 1965, before he was mayor, John Belk and fellow Charlotte retailer George Ivey made a deal with Charlottean James Harris: If he gave them 104 acres of his dairy farm along Sharon Road, they’d give him $1 million and 315 acres farther south.

Harris agreed, and Belk and Ivey planned a shopping center anchored by Belk and Ivey’s department stores. They hoped it would discourage national competitors from coming in and stealing customers. SouthPark mall opened in 1970.

“In those days, the Belks … and some others really had big influence on what made Charlotte grow. When they needed things to happen, they happened,” said Joe Epley, a retired Charlotte public relations executive who ran John Belk’s first mayoral campaign.

At more than 260,000 square feet, the SouthPark Belk is now one of the chain’s largest and busiest. It’s considered a flagship location, which means it meets the minimum size and volume requirements and has a product assortment that reflects the chain’s “Modern. Southern. Style” brand. Belk operates 22 flagship locations across the Southeast.

Today, the SouthPark neighborhood is one of Charlotte’s most prominent and quickly growing areas. In addition to being an increasingly dense residential area with more apartments underway, SouthPark is also home to 4.3 million square feet of office space and the headquarters of major corporations including Nucor and Coca-Cola Bottling Co.

2. The airport

Charlotte historians and leaders credit John Belk with establishing Charlotte Douglas International Airport as a major hub that makes Charlotte an attractive place for businesses to base their headquarters.

“Like the railroad 100 years ago, an airport today is a key factor in a city’s growth, development and economic health,” a March 1975 Observer story summarized Belk as saying in an interview.

As mayor, Belk fought for airport bonds to expand existing facilities and add a terminal. Voters ultimately approved the bonds in 1978 after rejecting a similar package three years prior.

When Piedmont Airlines – a predecessor of U.S. Airways, which merged with American Airlines in 2013 – was later looking for a hub, it chose Charlotte over Winston-Salem because of the city’s newer facilities.

Charlotte Douglas is now American’s second-busiest hub, and last year was the seventh-busiest airport in the world based on takeoffs and landings.

“John could see the big picture a lot better than most people could. He didn’t focus on the trivial. He was really big on the airport (and) on making Charlotte nationally recognized as a business center,” Epley said.

Bob Morgan, Charlotte Chamber of Commerce CEO, said Belk was mayor at a time (1969-77) when Charlotte was beginning to lay the groundwork of becoming the headquarters hub that it is today. Over the past six years alone, 28 companies have relocated corporate headquarters to Charlotte, according to figures from the Charlotte Chamber.

3. Hospitals

The Belks also helped develop one of the largest hospitals in the region, Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.

Founder Henry Belk was among the first donors to the Charlotte Private Hospital, which was led by Charlotte’s first gynecologist and Belk’s father-in-law, John Irwin. It was given to the Presbyterian churches in 1902, and when the hospital was establishing new facilities in the Elizabeth area, Belk and 10 other Charlotte businessmen underwrote a $20,000 loan for the hospital’s new home. It was more than double the size of its last, making it the city’s largest hospital at the time.

Belk personally guaranteed an additional $60,000 in loans from local banks in 1924 when the hospital was threatened with foreclosure. Henry Belk died in the hospital in 1952, and when his wife, Mary, died in 1968, she left the hospital 3.2 acres, including the large Belk home where John Belk grew up. It remains on the Hawthorne campus.

Presbyterian Hospital officially changed its name to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in April 2013, though it’s been part of Winston-Salem-based Novant Health, the second-largest hospital system in the Charlotte region, since 1997. The system operates four hospitals in Mecklenburg County, including Matthews Medical Center, Huntersville Medical Center, Charlotte Orthopedic Hospital and Presbyterian Medical Center, which has 622 beds and is the second-largest hospital in Charlotte.

The Belk family remains loyal to the hospital, and last year the family launched a $60 million fundraising campaign for a new cancer and heart disease center there.

4. Education

Experts and leaders including Morgan of the Charlotte Chamber also point to education as one of the Belks’ biggest civic contributions.

As a state senator in the mid-1960s, founder Henry Belk’s son Irwin introduced a bill authorizing the state to convert the two-year Charlotte College into a four-year university to be part of the state system. His brother Tom made the first of several land donations for what would become the UNC Charlotte campus, and the three brothers (Irwin, Tom and John) raised millions to help establish the school.

Davidson College, alma mater of John Belk, has also remained a beneficiary since the first Belks started taking classes there in 1847. The John Belk Scholarship is now one of the most prestigious undergraduate scholarships in the U.S., awarding full tuition to several students a year.

Among dozens of other initiatives in Charlotte and statewide, the Belks also funded stadiums at Wingate and Johnson C. Smith universities, helped establish UNCC’s undergraduate business school and funded a chapel, residence hall and international study program at Queens University of Charlotte.

Experts point out that the Belk business and family grew into prominence at a time when Charlotte itself was taking off, spurred in large part by the influence and financing of a small number of individuals.

“The Belks were not only giving their own money, but they were an encouragement to other businessmen to get involved and to get the checkbooks out,” said Howard Covington, a historian and author of “Belk: A Century of Retail Leadership.”

Staff writer Karen Garloch contributed.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta