Sunday, April 21, 2024

Johnson C. Smith board turned down $50M BofA-linked office project

(This updated story includes comments from Johnson C. Smith University)

Charlotte civic leader Malcomb Coley told a Charlotte group this week that he and a group backed by Bank of America planned a $50 million office-retail building near the Johnson C. Smith University campus. The board of the historically Black university turned down the privately funded project.

Coley made the comments at the Sarah Stevenson Tuesday Forum, a decades-old weekly gathering started by a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board member. The group hears speakers on issues important to the city’s Black community, and Tuesday’s event featured Coley because of his leadership in the $250 million Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative.

He is a part-owner with retired banker Hugh McColl Jr. and former Duke Energy executive Lloyd Yates in the Bright Hope Capital investment firm, which has pledged to back regional Black entrepreneurs.

A key emphasis of the initiative is an $82.5 million investment in Johnson C. Smith, including efforts to improve the university’s academic programs and steer more students into science, technology and business jobs. Major Charlotte employers have committed to hiring 200 Johnson C. Smith students annually for jobs or internships. The campus enrolls about 1,100 students.

After mentioning the nixed building plan near the campus, Coley received several questions related to what he called a “Black Wall Street” project. He said the office building would have included space for entrepreneurial training and support programs; a Bank of America branch office; and a restaurant operated by a local Black owner. It was planned on land owned by the university.

Johnson C. Smith gave “thoughtful and careful consideration to several options,” including selling the property, leasing it or entering a joint venture with Bright Hope Capital investment firm, according to a statement. The board decided not to proceed, but the property remains available for development, the university said.

Coley said an architect had been engaged with a directive to create a design comparable to an office building in Charlotte’s affluent Ballantyne, SouthPark or South End neighborhoods, he said.

“Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies,” he said.

The campus is about a mile west of downtown Charlotte in a neighborhood where housing values have soared in recent years. The site in question was a former A&P supermarket, and the land was donated to Johnson C. Smith by the Duke Endowment two years ago.

As part of the Mayor’s initiative, five major Charlotte executives, including Advocate Health CEO Gene Woods, BofA Charlotte Market President Kieth Cockrell and retired Trane Technologies CEO Mike Lamach, have recently joined the university’s board of trustees. They were not on the board when Coley’s project was rejected.

Coley said he grew up in a single-parent household in Goldsboro with seven siblings. After graduating from UNC Wilmington, he has worked at EY (formerly Ernst & Young) for 32 years. He is Charlotte managing partner and oversees a region from Minnesota to Florida at the consulting company that employs 360,000 people and reports $50 billion in revenue.

Coley said he meant no disrespect for the Charlotte HBCU. “I’m one of the top givers in Johnson C. Smith’s history,” he said, though he didn’t attend the university. “It’s the right thing to do.”

The Mayor’s initiative is the nation’s most bold effort to address racial inequity, Coley said, crediting Mayor Vi Lyles for her vision. Other goals include distributing 27,000 laptops and providing broadband access to tens of thousands of Charlotte residents and improving economic development prospects in several major corridors in historically low-income areas.

Those corridors including Beatties Ford Road, which abuts the Johnson C. Smith campus.

“No other city has done what Charlotte has done,” he said.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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