Lake Norman & Mooresville

Plan envisions hotel, conference center for downtown Davidson

Davidson Town Hall would be razed to make room for a development anchored by a hotel and conference center.
Davidson Town Hall would be razed to make room for a development anchored by a hotel and conference center.

Davidson Town Board members might need to find a new place to meet soon.

And they’re OK with that.

Commissioners have endorsed a conceptual plan to raze Davidson Town Hall and replace it with a nearly 250,000-square-foot complex anchored by a hotel and conference center.

A team from the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill has been working with the town for more than a year on a concept to redevelop a 3.5-acre, town-owned tract now anchored by Town Hall and the attached Davidson fire and police stations.

The so-called Catalyst Project is a partnership between the town and the School of Government designed to meet pent-up demand for downtown building space and parking without threatening the village-like appeal of Mecklenburg County’s northernmost municipality.

Early proposals called for a mix of retail, office and residential space. But after discussing the project with developers, a hotel and conference center emerged as the most viable anchor for the site, Rory Dowling, a project manager with the School of Government, told the Town Board Aug. 26.

“They’ve all had quite a bit of interest (in a hotel),” Dowling said of the half-dozen developers he has spoken with about the project.

Dowling noted a proposed hotel virtually across the street from Davidson College would be perfect for visiting families and alumni in town for events. He and Davidson Economic Development Manager Kim Fleming added that hotel occupants have a significant economic impact without adding much traffic to the town’s already busy streets.

“Studies show that only about half of hotel occupants have their cars with them,” Dowling said.

That also means those visitors are more likely to eat in nearby restaurants and shop in downtown stores, he added.

“I think the hotel would bring an electricity downtown,” said Commissioner Jim Fuller. “And I really like the idea of inviting all these people to town, then letting them pay (a significant share) of the local tax bill.”

“And then they go,” Fleming quickly added.

Dowling envisions a 125-room boutique hotel attached to 13,000 square feet of meeting space on the site, along with more than 100,000 square feet of residential units, 28,000 square feet of retail space, 12,000 square feet of office space, and 25,000 square feet of space for the town administration, fire and police departments. The conceptual plan also would include more than 450 parking spaces.

Dowling estimated the cost of such a project at close to $60 million, with the goal of having the town pay little or nothing, other than potentially leasing space to replace what it would lose with the demolition of the Town Hall complex. The town would likely sell the property to developers, who would finance the project.

Town officials sought the help of the School of Government because they see the Town Hall site and the land around it as an area of enormous untapped potential. It’s that same potential, and the likelihood of finding developers to fund and carry out the project, that drew the School of Government to Davidson.

But buildings and parking aren’t the project’s only goals. A key element is transforming the Catalyst site into a focal point of downtown and, in the process, pulling the “center” of downtown southward while also creating an effective link that would make South Main Street feel like a part of a downtown historically defined by North Main Street.

Dowling said he and his colleagues will analyze the project’s potential impact on traffic and parking while they finalize their proposal. He added that he hoped to begin reaching out to developers with an official pitch in late September or early October, with construction beginning as early as next summer.

Commissioners have not been asked to vote on anything related to the project because it is still in the concept phase. Dowling came to the Town Board Aug. 26 looking for its general support for a hotel as the anchor of any development on the site. He reminded commissioners that the town may ultimately settle on a very different plan, depending on how developers respond.

The town will host a public session, Fleming said, to let citizens know “here’s all the input we’ve received and here’s where we are in the project before the solicitation goes out” to developers.

John Deem is a freelance writer: