Thursday, July 18, 2024

Town Square: Huntersville is a quaint suburban Charlotte boomtown

By Bryan Mims

The place is an anachronism, a relic, a zoning-ordinance oversight. And it’s a marvel. Quaint things shine through the hubbub of Huntersville brighter than a digital billboard. When driving west on Gilead Road on a weekday afternoon, traffic is clotted by commuters and people bound for a latte or a hot yoga session.

Go past Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center, rising fortress-like along Interstate 77, a dozen miles north of downtown Charlotte. Pass a Latin American restaurant named Verde, a pole-dance fitness studio, a bagel shop, a hair-removal salon, and the usual suspects of 21st-century suburbia. Just as Gilead Road curves and narrows to a packed two-lane, there it is: A yard cluttered with oddball contraptions “made out of everybody’s junk,” as the property’s owner, Benny Reeder, puts it. A sign reading “Benny’s Yard Art and Welding” suggests a kitschy roadside attraction.

There’s a teepee built from slabs from a sawmill, a car with a body of propane tanks, stick-figure people with an anatomy of steel pipes, and critters with hubcap faces. Reeder, a 69-year-old man of few words and a Southern drawl, moved to this spot in 1972. Back then, Huntersville wasn’t much. “Wasn’t nothing to it, just a two-lane road,” he says. When he looks out at the traffic and all the subdivisions, there’s a sigh of exasperation. “Well, it ain’t like it used to be. Too many people,” he says. But given the offbeat and possibly off-putting nature of his trade, he knows he’s here to stay. “It’d be hard for me to go somewhere else and do what I’m doing now. I’ve been down here so long, I’ve been grandfathered in.”

Huntersville was incorporated in 1873 along a major north-south rail line and named for Robert Boston Hunter, a local cotton farmer. Well into the mid-20th century, Huntersville stayed a small, textile-mill town framed
by farmland, still a comfortable distance from Charlotte.

When Reeder moved here in 1972, Huntersville had a population of about 1,500. Through the 1970s, the town shed residents, shrinking 16% to 1,294 by 1980. Charlotte’s emergence as a big-league banking center and cosmopolitan city changed everything. In 2000, Huntersville’s population rose to nearly 25,000 residents and kept on growing. The local chamber estimates 65,000 residents. Huntersville is North Carolina’s 17th-largest city. Among the state’s 20 biggest cities, only Cary and Apex have grown faster over the last eight years.

More than a bedroom community

“The quality of life here is just unbelievable,” City Manager Anthony Roberts says. “The tax rate is low, it’s a safe city, you’ve got your recreation, you’ve got your neighborhoods.”

Huntersville is in a geographic sweet spot: It’s just beyond the northern limits of Charlotte, I-77 runs right through it, the I-485 beltway runs to the south, providing easy access to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Lake Norman laps against its northeastern edge, with homes and parks presiding near the waterfront. What had been fertile land for cotton back in Mr. Hunter’s day is now pushing up a bumper crop of neighborhoods appealing to millennials and empty-nesters alike.

“I would say it’s very much a family area,” says Ben Garcia, a father of two boys, 7 and 2, who lives in the Vermillion community just east of downtown, a master-planned subdivision with houses, townhomes and its own bar and grill called Harvey’s. He moved to the area seven years ago from Pennsylvania and works from home. While Charlotte is the area’s mothership, he says he rarely needs to get onboard. “We have it all here,” he says.

To be sure, Huntersville has its legions who commute into Charlotte every day for jobs. But the town has its own heavyweight employers. The town-owned business park, named The Park-Huntersville, has about 6,000 workers, Roberts says. Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center, with a staff of 700, borders the northern flank of the park and is one of the leading employers in Huntersville. Joe Gibbs Racing, which has its headquarters in the park, has a payroll of about 650. The company, owned by former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, is one of the most competitive racing teams in NASCAR. Its cars are driven by such stars as Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

Another top job generator is Duke Energy’s McGuire Nuclear Station on Lake Norman, which has 1,200 employees. Metrolina Greenhouses, owned by the Van Wingerden family, puts about 725 people to work year-round, plus 600 more during seasonal peaks, according to its website. At 162 acres under one roof, it is “the largest single-site heated greenhouse in the United States,” according to the company. Rubbermaid, GM Financial, Saertex, Keller Technology and Microban are other private employers in Huntersville. “You have major corporations here,” says Roberts, the town manager. “That makes us different from some of the other areas around Charlotte.”

It also hosts some shopping magnets. Just west of I-77 on Sam Furr Road, Birkdale Village has a cool, downtown vibe. That’s by design. As malls are mothballed across the land, retail developers are recreating the Main Streets they supplanted years ago. This outdoor shopping mall developed by Crosland Southeast and Pappas Properties in 2003 — with its sundry restaurants, shops, movie theater, condos, apartments and offices — feels as much like a downtown as the official downtown Huntersville.

Getting back to its core

Nobody would dispute that, in this ever-growing community, downtown is low-key. Main Street is a narrow, little-traveled affair. It’s bounded on one side by the railroad and the other by brick buildings housing the Main Street Tavern and a laptop-friendly hangout called Main Street Coffee & Coworking. The main crossroads in downtown is N.C. 115 and Gilead Road, where Discovery Place Kids, a popular children’s museum, has anchored a corner since 2010. Traffic on N.C. 115, only two lanes wide, is often bumper to bumper, but town leaders are working to loosen the car flow while also juicing up foot traffic.

Compared to its neighbors of Davidson and Cornelius, “we have the least developed core,” says Mayor John Anarella, who’s been in office since 2015. “For 20 years, [previous town leaders] were trying to figure out what to do with their downtown. It was limited by the traffic flow and older buildings and, from my standpoint, a lack of leadership.”

To make the downtown more appealing, the town is undertaking a $20 million street redesign that will essentially split N.C. 115 traffic in two. An alternate route will run just east of downtown for those who want to take it slow, park and stroll around. Otherwise, through traffic will stick to the state highway. The project will also enhance downtown infrastructure by removing utility poles and burying the lines, along with upgrading the water and sewer system. “I think these things will all attract more and more development,” Anarella says. “We’re starting to get a lot more interest in development in downtown because they understand the process of the traffic flow.”

Look for much more growth in the area; Huntersville has more than 1 million square feet of spec-office space either built or soon to be.

Speculative projects of pre-built suites are ready for new tenants to plug in and get to work. “We’ve had a lot of companies settle into the Charlotte area but decide to be in Huntersville,” says Anarella, a financial adviser who serves on the investment advisory committee for the N.C. Department of the State Treasurer. “This way, they’re not paying the higher Charlotte taxes and they can still get to the Charlotte amenities and Charlotte airport.”

Huntersville offers the quintessential suburban experience: High-performing schools, modern neighborhoods, cool hangouts and, yes, hot yoga. But drive around, and occasionally you’ll bump into something that doesn’t seem to belong but complements the tableau all the same.

On Beatties Ford Road on the western reaches of town, the traffic is thick, but the scenery is largely pastoral. Nearby is Sweetwater Farms with chickens, horses, goats and pigs. Where Gilead Road dumps more traffic on this already stressed route, a horse-speckled pasture sweeps off to a pair of silos and barns with rust-worn roofs. Where did this come from? It’s Magnolia Equestrian Center, where suburbanites can take horse-riding lessons and get mud on their shoes. In Huntersville — sought-after and spread-out as it is — the stylish and the offbeat, the scenic and the citified, can all find their space.

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