In 1996, it was just a pile of dirt and a vision.
But on the eve of Ballantyne Corporate Park's 15th anniversary, Bissell Companies' dream come true in south Charlotte is a story so successful it's spurring further development in an economic climate of downsizing and fearful investors.
The 2,000-acre mixed-use development - the largest of its kind in Mecklenburg County - includes offices, retailers, restaurants and hotels, on both sides of U.S. 521.
The area practically could be its own municipality - and that running joke is mentioned often among community and civic leaders.
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"It's hard to believe that, in 15 years, we have what we have out here," said Ballantyne Breakfast Club President Ray Eschert, who is referred jokingly to as "Mayor Eschert" by Charlotte City Council members.
The impetus for all the multimillion-dollar developments is Ballantyne Corporate Park.
Bissell developed Ballantyne on land acquired from brothers Johnny and Cameron Harris and their sister Sara, who married H.C. "Smoky" Bissell, Bissell Companies' founder.
In 1996, projections were for 3 million square feet of office space - equivalent to downtown Raleigh at the time.
Decades earlier, Bissell had developed the SouthPark area. After the first phase, the company continued acquiring land and constructing buildings based on demand.
It approached Ballantyne differently. H.C. Bissell decided they would acquire the land and begin to build buildings on speculation, meaning without a contract with a single business.
The groundbreaking for Ballantyne One, the first commercial office building in the corporate park, was Aug. 15, 1996, around the time work started on the golf course.
The timing was ingenious, said Bissell CEO Ned Curran, who was involved with Ballantyne from its inception. Drivers on Interstate 485 saw huge cranes and clouds of dust, and they started talking, creating the buzz the developer needed.
One year later, the building was finished, and groundbreaking for phase one of the Ballantyne Resort clubhouse and Dana Rader Golf School commenced.
The growth magnet continued expanding. ESPN, Petro Express and Lending Tree joined in. Then came BB&T and Allen Tate, as well as a several hotels.
"It was fast-tracked more than I realized," said Eschert.
The 535-acre corporate park now boasts of 3.5 million square feet of office space, as well as dozens of big businesses, including 29 Fortune 500 companies.
Each building in the park is named after someone Smoky Bissell knows, Curran said. The Sherrill building is named for T.A. Sherrill Construction, which helped Bissell and Harris develop SouthPark and parts of Quail Hollow. Another is named after the doctors who treated his late wife's cancer: Sara Bissell died in 2009.
The corporate park's success exceeded all expectations. The area has grown to be an invaluable source of tax revenue for the city and county.
Today, the housing, retail and other commercial interests in Ballantyne represent a tax value of nearly $2 billion, said Curran. Ballantyne Corporate Park alone is valued at more than $700 million.
Curran said the area, however, is more diverse than most people think. Not every home is worth seven figures. In a one-mile radius of the corporate park, there are about 2,500 housing units with an average value of $388,000.
Bissell currently is working on a $100 million expansion to the corporate complex that will include two 10-story buildings totaling 550,000 square feet.
A commercial venture of this magnitude is a rarity in these tough economic times, when most businesses are trimming fat. Once again, Bissell will build with faith that tenants will come. The expansion will be the largest speculative office project in the nation, according to CoStar Group, a commercial real estate intelligence provider.
Bissell has also proposed a rezoning of 520 acres to add 1 million square feet of office space, 200 hotel rooms and 600 residential units. In addition, Bissell has proposed $11 million in road improvements, including a bridge over I-485 to link North Community House Road to Endhaven Lane.
Bissell would fund the road improvements if 45 percent of the new property taxes were diverted from the project into a fund to reimburse the developer. The remainder would go to the city and county.
Bissell would like to bundle the I-485 bridge project with the N.C. Department of Transportation's plans for the outerbelt. Those plans include widening I-485 to three lanes each way from Interstate 77 to Johnston Road, and building a flyover interchange so northbound traffic on Johnston Road can access the inner loop of the outerbelt without stopping at a traffic light.
Curran said he hopes both the rezoning and reimbursement for road improvements will be resolved by September.
At a public hearing before the Charlotte City Council several weeks ago, Jeff Brown, managing partner of law firm King & Spalding's Charlotte office, presented the rezoning proposal, calling Ballantyne a "remarkable success story."
"This will allow Ballantyne to continue to be a positive engine ... for the broader region," he said.
The council will vote on the rezoning in September.
There will be no public celebration for the Ballantyne Corporate Park's 15th anniversary, but the Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, is offering "Thank You" packages for neighboring residents of the Carolinas, as well as a "Celebrations" package available to everyone.