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Ballantyne developer “Smoky” Bissell sees more development on tap

Last week, the Ballantyne Corporate Park welcomed yet another high-profile tenant when Wingate University announced it will move its Matthews campus to one of Ballantyne’s 10-story office buildings in August.

The news marked the latest coup for the 535-acre park, which landed a huge corporate relocation when insurance giant MetLife in April announced plans to bring its U.S. retail headquarters and more than 1,300 jobs to Ballantyne.

H.C. “Smoky” Bissell, head of the Bissell Cos., has spent decades turning hundreds of acres of once-remote southern Mecklenburg farmland into one of the more dynamic places to live and work in Charlotte.

He took a few moments after the Wingate press conference to tell me more about how things are going out at Ballantyne these days. Comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: You bucked conventional wisdom during the economic downturn by building new office buildings – even when you didn’t have tenants lined up. How are you feeling about how your bet turned out?

I don’t want to say this is exactly the way I saw it happening, but we have always had a different model than anybody else I know of in the development business.

We’ve been blessed to have very specific areas to work in. We had property holdings in the SouthPark area. We did that from 1967 to 1995. And when we came out here, everybody thought that was a big bet. It never occurred to me that it was a big bet. It just felt to me like a natural progression. I kept constantly saying to myself: ‘You have a blank canvas. Don’t screw it up.’

Q: Aside from MetLife, what have been some notable points along the way in the park’s development of office buildings?

We have been blessed with an architectural team that has tremendous talent. They let us go through five, six, 10 iterations on everything we were going to do. We built specifically for SPX after they wanted to move from the building they’d been in. We built specifically for Equitable. They had been with us 20 years in SouthPark and came out here with their national operations center. We did a building for Honda that we finished a year and a half ago that was all for them. After that, we did what we thought the market wanted.

Q: Have you built anything out here where the timing proved to be off?

It isn’t a tremendously exact science. We were way ahead of our time when we built the Ballantyne Hotel, which opened in September of 2001. It was very slow after it started and everybody said it must have been 9/11 … but we were too far ahead of our time. But at the same time, it’s the icon of the park today. And when the decision-makers come from out of town and they get a chance to experience that, I think it helps us tremendously.

Q: Are more office buildings on the drawing board?

We will continue to try to do what we think the market wants. And I think the market wants to go higher than six (stories). I always said I was born to never go above six stories, but it was those who worked with me that took us to 10.

(A reporter) caught me the other day and said, ‘I heard you’re thinking of going to 15 stories’ and I said, ‘Ye Gods!’ And then I said, ‘Well that does make sense, because what I want to do is build a five-story parking deck and put a 10-story building on top of it.’

Q: You’ve bet right on the economy in the past. How do you feel it’s looking now?

I think we still haven’t dealt with some of the problems out there in terms of belt tightening. But at the same time, I think people have gotten tired of waiting. They’ve gotten tired of saying, ‘I can’t do anything because of the economy.’ I mean, the consumer’s back in the market. The corporate consumer is back in the market for office space whereas they haven’t been for a long time. It’s easy to say, ‘I’m going to keep my head in my shell.’ Now you may get left behind if you don’t get your head out of the shell and go forward.

Q: What do you think about the controversy over control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport? Should it be switched from the city’s control to a regional authority?

I am not familiar with the issues. But no matter what you have, it comes back to the chief executive. And you certainly have had a great chief executive and have a great chief executive (in Jerry Orr). I don’t know how much trouble that’ll get me in (chuckles).

Jerry Orr is younger than I am. But at the same time I think I have got a great many more years here, and I’m going to keep doing this as long as it’s fun. And when it stops being fun, somebody else gets to do it. So now, I haven’t answered your question, but I’ve told you what I think.

Q: Should we expect to see more major relocation announcements for Ballantyne? Any hot prospects lined up?

If we don’t have more major announcements, I’m not doing my job (chuckles).