Two years ago, when Jeff Lee and his wife, Tricia, looked for a spot to locate their hand-painted furniture business, they picked downtown Mount Holly, right across the Catawba River from Charlotte.
Vintage Nest opened in a 1928 building that most recently had been a drugstore and decades ago a movie theater.
The shop on South Main Street has been so successful – customers come from the Lake Norman area, Lincolnton, Shelby and Lake Wylie, S.C., – that Lee is moving to a much larger building this spring.
But he’s staying on Main Street.
“I kind of fell in love with downtown Mount Holly,” said Lee, 49, a native of Greenville, N.C. “The older buildings have character – and they’re available. Mount Holly has been very good to us.”
Local leaders say they believe Mount Holly is headed toward a resurgence after lagging behind its booming neighbor Belmont for so long.
“Belmont has done a wonderful job with their central business district, but they started in the 1990s. On the other hand, Mount Holly didn’t get started until 2005,” said Greg Beal, Mount Holly planning and development director.
In downtown Mount Holly, there’s a new $3 million streetscape and exteriors of buildings from the 1890s and 1920s have been refurbished, many on the National Register of Historic Places. Since 2011, $153,000 in small-business incentive grants from the city have brought in four new businesses and seven business expansions. The former City Hall building on Main Street was turned into a museum under the care of the Mount Holly Historical Society.
A sprawling, 100-year-old former textile mill building has been transformed into the new City Hall (Municipal Complex) that also houses the Mount Holly Police Department and Discover You, CaroMont Health’s 5,000-square-foot interactive health and wellness center. The building’s 6,000-square-foot “Grand Hall,” which dates from 1895, is rented out for weddings and other events and stays booked most weekends.
Nearby, on N.C. 27, is the new 38,000-square-foot CaroMont Regional Medical Center-Mount Holly, the region’s first free-standing emergency department.
Crowds pack downtown for special events such as the Art & Music Festival, Food Truck Fridays, and what leaders describe as one of the top midsize, all-volunteer farmers markets in North Carolina.
South of downtown, across the Catawba River from the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a $21 million project now under construction includes 200 upscale apartments and the J. Peters Grill and Bar, expected to open this summer.
Mount Holly has 10 miles of Catawba River shoreline, the most of any city in the region. Now, accessibility is limited, but the city is working to change that. Last October, groundbreaking took place for the first phase of a paved greenway project that will eventually stretch 14 miles from Interstate 85 in the south to N.C. 16 in the north.
Leaders admit the city has been slow to reach the energy level of its next-door neighbor, Belmont, which began planning in the 1990s for a rebranding that sparked new restaurants, businesses and residential growth.
In 2003, Charlotte architect Ron Morgan led a Mount Holly visioning process that brought the community together in a series of public meetings to develop a plan. The forums were organized in advance of the opening of Interstate 485, which has an exit near Mount Holly.
At the time, downtown Mount Holly had little public private investment, broken concrete sidewalks, overhead power lines and wooden utility poles. There were no benches, trash receptacles, street trees or decorative lighting.
The public forums produced a list of goals that included enhancing downtown and linking it to the Catawba River. In 2005, voters approved a $3 million bond package to develop the downtown streetscape.
Three years later, the new Municipal Complex opened and Beal called its adjacent greenway the “cog in the wheel” for Mount Holly’s recreational renaissance. There were numerous delays – from getting permits and easements to dealing with endangered species. The greenway project was slowed when the city had to hire a biologist to determine whether northern long-eared bats inhabited a specific area along the river. As it turned out, the nearest long-eared bat population was 40 miles away.
Then there was the 2008 economic downturn, which slowed progress, but didn’t halt it completely.
Leaders are encouraged by what’s been accomplished already and the upswing in activity. The city has room to grow to the north, along the N.C. 16 corridor, and to the south, where more than 93,000 vehicles a day pass by Interstate 85 Exit 27. On a clear day, they can see the Charlotte skyline in the distance.
“I’m getting calls from retailers I’ve never talked to before” said Beal. “Growth is coming. Now it’s time. I think we’re being discovered on a lot of fronts.”
Mount Holly Mayor Bryan Hough also feels good about the direction his hometown is headed. Progress has been made in infrastructure improvements that will help businesses. As the city updates its master plan, he hopes Mount Holly, along with other towns in eastern Gaston County, can “recognize our strengths and grow together. It’s important that as we should recognize we’re a region, not just individual cities. We need to look at the bigger picture with Charlotte’s economic impact spilling over.”
“We’ve got some momentum and optimism,” said Hough. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”