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Mecklenburg County Bar’s new headquarters set to open in west Charlotte

The Mecklenburg County Bar’s former headquarters address, 438 Queens Road, put it in the heart of Myers Park.

Its next one, featuring a newly constructed headquarters building, will plunk down the county’s top lawyers in a mostly empty business park on west Charlotte’s Rozzelle’s Ferry Road.

Driving by for the first time, you might not figure the Greenway Business Center as a logical home for the bar. It’s a business park with more park than businesses. Majestic old trees throw shade across empty grass-covered parcels.

Sure, there’s Belvedere Family Dentistry nearby, in a renovated historic theater building. And there’s a small city of Charlotte office, too.

But across the street you’ll find Small Time Towing & Tires surrounded by a chain-link fence. There’s also the Uptown Lounge Restaurant, and just up the street, an abandoned Fast Stop convenience store.

What gives? Did the bar get a sweet deal? Is it making a social statement by putting down stakes in an underdeveloped neighborhood?

Or does the bar see potential there that others have missed?

All of the above, bar officials said recently while showing me around their $5.5 million headquarters project, which remains under construction.

The bar has been looking for a new home for a while now, said Bill McMullen, a co-chair of its building committee. The group, temporarily housed at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte’s headquarters uptown, needs bigger digs, especially for parking.

The bar says it had 1,900 members in 1993 when it bought the Queens Road property. Now it has about 5,000, and they need parking when they come to brush up on the latest legal nuances and courtroom tactics.

McMullen said bar officials looked at more than 50 locations before landing at Greenway Business Center, which was launched in 2008 by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Development Corp., a public-private partnership between the city, county and Charlotte Chamber.

The business park occupies the site of the former Belvedere Homes public housing complex, which struggled with crime and fell into disrepair before the Charlotte Housing Authority won a grant in 2004 to demolish it.

The development agency, charged with bringing new investments into struggling areas, acquired about 30 acres. It hoped to recruit businesses, recreational facilities and about 125 jobs.

Thanks in part to the recession, most of those dreams remain unrealized. The development agency itself, which has helped projects such as the City West Commons shopping center on West Boulevard and the Wilkinson Business Park, was claimed by the downturn, too.

City officials said its self-financing business model couldn’t keep it above water. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership absorbed its assets early this year and has taken charge of the Greenway Business Center, said Julie Porter, the partnership’s president.

So, given all those factors, when the bar came calling last year, its negotiators landed that sweet deal – $125,000 for 3 acres. Point of comparison: The bar sold its old Queens Road property last year for just over $1 million.

If you’re not familiar with the west side, you’re probably thinking the bar has decamped to the hinterlands in order to save money. But bar leaders would fight you on that.

They say the new site sits about 2 miles from the federal courthouse uptown, just like the former headquarters on Queens Road. The business park sits just a mile from Johnson C. Smith University.

“It seems like it might be farther out, but it’s not,” said Nancy Roberson, executive director of the bar. “It’s just in a different direction. And that’s OK.”

The bar hopes to have the new building finished by the end of next month. Construction workers scurried around inside it one recent morning as Roberson, McMullen and bar President Carla Archie showed me around.

They said they initially decided to build here because it just made the most practical sense. Now that they’re almost ready to move in, they’re hoping their move does more than just provide the 150 dedicated parking spaces they so desperately sought.

Said McMullen: “This gives credibility to (the idea of) building relationships with the entire community rather than any particular facet of it.”

Some bar members might still need convincing, judging from a “frequently asked questions” item posted on the bar’s website.

One question: Is the area safe? Answer: There were 289 crimes reported within a half-mile of the new building in 2011-12; the Queens Road location had 541 crimes reported during that time period.

(When it came to violent crimes, though, 29 were reported within a half-mile of the Greenway Park location, compared with 15 near the Queens Road location).

Stereotypes and generalizations rarely hold the full truth of a matter. When you take the time to drive around the area nearby, you don’t see blight on every block. You don’t see any pimps or dope peddlers on the street – at least I didn’t think I did, anyway.

You see neighborhoods such as nearby Smallwood slowly on the rise, with new, sometimes massive, Dilworth-style bungalows sprinkling in among the older homes.

“That was really an eye-opener when the broker gave us a tour,” McMullen said. “I never knew what was going on in terms of the housing.”

Porter, the housing partnership chief, said a couple more parcels in back of the business park sold just this summer. The bar’s project, she said, will eventually be joined by more office buildings.

So for now, the bar’s two-story, 24,000-square-foot headquarters looks like a bit of an anomaly. Two or three decades from now, who knows? It might look like a really smart move.

Eric Frazier writes about economic and real estate development, jobs and the economy. Got a story tip? Contact him at (704) 358-5145, efrazier@charlotteobserver.com or on Twitter at @Ericfraz.

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