Lake Norman & Mooresville

Davidson debate: paradise lost, or opportunity?

One potential plan for redeveloping town-owned land in Davidson calls for tearing down Town Hall, which was built in 1990.
One potential plan for redeveloping town-owned land in Davidson calls for tearing down Town Hall, which was built in 1990. DAVID BORAKS

It's still just an idea, without financing or developers, but Davidson residents are hotly debating a proposal to redevelop about 3.5 acres of town-owned land around Town Hall on South Main Street.

The project would add offices, shops, apartments, a parking deck and possibly a hotel. A new “market street” and green space would be built, and one version of the plan suggests tearing down Town Hall.

Will it happen? It’s too soon to tell, several town leaders said. “The most important thing for people to understand is that it’s a study and we are investigating options,” said Kim Fleming, the town of Davidson’s economic development manager.

Town officials will present models and drawings of the proposal and hear residents’ concerns at a meeting Oct. 20 at Town Hall.

Consultants from the University of North Carolina School of Government drew up the plan as part of a year-long effort by town officials to solve the town government’s own need for more space as well as to add parking, find a permanent home for Davidson Farmers Market and bring more private investment to Main Street. Officials have called it the “Catalyst Study,” for its potential to improve downtown.

But to some residents, the plan sounds like “Paradise Lost.”

That’s the name local musician and real estate agent Rusty Knox chose when he started a Facebook group and page in September opposing the town’s plan. (It’s also the name of a song on Knox’s first album, “Reason Why,” from 2008.) As of last week, the group had 460 members, and the page had 557 followers.

“I started Paradise Lost to save our Main Street,” Knox said. “When I saw the scope of the downtown catalyst, I felt personally that it would undermine and change the fiber of downtown Davidson forever, in a negative manner.”

About 35 residents attended a Sept. 21 meeting at Knox’s Main Street office to organize opposition to the Town Hall plan. He and others worry it will mean more traffic in an already congested downtown and make the town less pedestrian-friendly. He thinks it also would “further divide South Main Square from Main Street proper.”

South Main Square is a disconnected area of shops and restaurants about a five-minute walk south from Town Hall.

Other residents have worried the project is a done deal, and conspiracy theories have abounded on email and social media.

Town officials have responded by trying to spread the word that the project is only an idea. There’s no final plan, and town commissioners haven’t taken any votes. The town has yet to seek developers, and there’s no idea yet whether financing will even be available to pay all or part of the estimated $60 million cost.

Several Davidson officials compared it to the first draft of a dream house design, which a homebuyer must reconcile with a small budget and other real-world considerations.

“It’s not a done deal. It’s evolving,” said Davidson commissioner and homebuilder Rodney Graham. While the plan tries to solve key problems, such as a lack of parking downtown, he thinks as it stands now, it’s “fairly intense.”

Fellow commissioner Beth Cashion said while the Town Hall project has come up in public meetings for a year, she understands some people may have been “caught off guard.” She hopes residents will realize that proposal is “the whole thing blown up on steroids, to the highest and best use. … There’s not a contract and no timeline decided on at this point.”

Cashion doesn’t think the “dream” plan for the site will get built. She favors a measured approach. “We’ll probably go back and look at more of an organic growth of the buildings. … Start with what are our most pressing needs, which is police, fire and some office space, and put the pieces together in a phased effort.”

A study of town needs

The town has discussed similar long-range plans over the past two decades – none of which ever came to fruition. One called for building a second office building on the parking lot in front of Town Hall. That would have added retail space facing South Main Street and provided town office space.

The topic came up again at a Town Board retreat in January 2014, but this time, it was broader, Cashion said. Davidson officials were puzzling over how to meet critical town needs – more space for the police and fire departments, including fire sleeping quarters, and more parking for downtown. Preliminary estimates suggested those projects alone would cost about $7.6 million – a hefty figure in a town where the annual budget isn’t much more than that.

So in mid-2014, the town approved spending $50,000 to hire a consultant – the Development Finance Initiative at the University of North Carolina School of Government – to examine options for the entire 3.5-acres of town-owned land, possibly in partnership with private developers.

The Development Finance Initiative advises local governments that want to attract private investment for what it calls “transformative projects.” The group has done about 50 projects since 2011, from Wilmington to Huntersville, preparing pre-development studies, calculating the financial feasibility and talking to developers. “They marry the public interest with what the development community is looking for,” Fleming said.

“We take a look at the market and what the market can support and then take it through a detailed public process to engage local residents,” said Michael Lemanski, director of the UNC Development Finance Initiative. “Once we have all that, we build a financial model around it, so we can quantify the public and private investments that are necessary to accomplish the goals.”

That’s how the process has worked in Davidson. Fleming said the ideas on the table right now have been shaped by input from citizens and town commissioners at meetings over the past year.

On Tuesday, the town and the consultant will show drawings, site plans and 3-D models for what the full “Catalyst Project” might look like. The amounts of office space, retail space and the idea of a hotel all are based on research showing market demand. In its current form, the plan includes:

▪ As many as 80-100 condos or apartments

A 125-room hotel with meeting space. That’s about the size of the Homewood Suites, off Exit 30, which is near capacity, according to Fleming.

▪ About 28,000 square feet of retail space

▪ About 12,000 square feet of office space

▪ 25,000 square feet for town administrative and public safety needs. The current Town Hall is about 15,800 square feet.

▪ A new cobblestone “market street” between South Main and Jackson streets that would accommodate the farmer’s market.

▪ A plaza and new green spaces for the market, festivals and other public events.

The town of Davidson likely would sell the land and help finance its own part of the project through new property taxes, hotel occupancy and prepared food taxes at new businesses on the site, Fleming said.

“The town does not want to be the developer or the leasing agent. We don’t want to compete with private industry,” she said.

David Boraks is a freelance writer:

Want to go?

The town of Davidson will hold a public information session about the “Catalyst Study” for the Town Hall site 7 p.m. Oct. 20 at Davidson Town Hall, 216 S. Main St. Details, drawings and other background: