HUNTERSVILLE – The redevelopment and related invigoration of every aspect of downtown has been a talked-about and targeted goal for decades. Delays – stemming from factors ranging from the on-again, off-again status of local commuter rail service to the reluctance by some town officials to commit millions of municipal dollars in a long-range master plan with a multitude of unsettled moving parts – kept a rejuvenated town center on a to-do list.
In 2012, the idea that $10.5 million in municipal bond money approved by voters could be invested in the project pumped fresh air into the plan. But everything remained on hold until 22 months ago, when a 30-acre town-owned tract off Fourth Street – the vacant “Anchor Mill” site long considered the most likely launch pad for downtown’s new image – was sold and confirmed as the future site for a modern, mixed-use village.
That sale triggered a slow-moving stream of decisions that transformed the Main Street Upgrade – the name given to the realignment of roads through the heart of town – and related improvements from a wish-list into fast-approaching realities.
In September 2017, commissioners approved an agreement officially designating $10 million in expenditures – $5 million in town funds and $5 million in state money – toward the Main Street project.
Those funds are financing the initial stages of work to build an alternative north/south route through town, with up to 18 months of negotiations expected to be required to complete right of way acquisitions on more than 150 parcels.
And with the road project underway, commercial and residential use coming to Vermillion Village (the name given to the Anchor Mill site venture) and submissions due Feb. 15 for proposals to develop town-owned acreage near the Gilead Road/N.C. 115 intersection, deciding what the rest of downtown will become is now a pressing issue.
“There are a lot of things coming to your plate,” Planning Director Jack Simoneau told commissioners during the town’s annual planning retreat in late January. “Anchor Mill is an ‘Earth mover’ for us in terms of downtown change, but there plenty of other aspects to consider.”
The road to revitalization
The new road will be the catalyst for all the change. The 1.27 miles of roadwork will feature an upgraded Main Street parallel to N.C. 115 between Fourth Street at the northern end and Mt. Holly-Huntersville Road at the southern end. Roundabouts at each end will also include lane additions on N.C. 115. Initially conceived as a congestion-relief mechanism, the road is now also envisioned as the central artery to feed a downtown destination filled with offices, restaurants, retail shops and a range of residential options.
To achieve that vision, the town will need to upgrade parking – current on-street parking on Main Street will be consumed by additional lanes – and create a blueprint for a new downtown business district. In his presentation, Simoneau said the small strip of existing businesses along South Main Street, and the potential for development along the same section of South Maxwell Avenue, are primary areas to examine.
“How we detail this will have a big impact on our businesses,” he said. “It is a very important block.”
But not the only one.
A half-acre town-owned parcel along N.C. 115 in front of the Town Center building (home to Discovery Place Kids) is another significant piece of the plan. That parcel, along with two additional town-owned acres on the west side of Town Center, are on the market.
The N.C. 115 frontage property, appraised at $1.42 million, is ideally suited for a multi-story office and retail building. The other acres, appraised at $1.34 million, are best suited for a collection of retail and residential uses.
What happens on those properties, and how the town provides amenities (parking, sidewalks and signage) and enhancements (artwork and street-side landscaping) to complement private investments and the town’s Veteran’s Park at Main & Maxwell, will all help determine downtown’s future.
The Main Street Upgrade is the centerpiece, Simoneau told commissioners, but there are other major components. And all of them must come together to achieve the goal, which Simoneau quoted from town’s guidebook for future growth, its 2030 Community Plan:
“The historic character of downtown Huntersville will be preserved and enhanced through the integration of new with existing development, reflecting the highest quality architecture, resulting in a revitalized downtown that is uniquely Huntersville.”
That process, after decades of indecision, has begun.