|ONLINE PRO & CON
After months of public meetings, the Cornelius town board is scheduled to vote tonight (Monday, April 21) at its 7 p.m. meeting on the proposed Village at Lake Norman, a $516 million, 105-acre mixed-use project off Highway 21 between Exits 25 and 28. The Village would be twice the size of Birkdale Village, in Huntersville, and could affect the economy, planning, roads and traffic well beyond Cornelius.
A development team called Cornelius Bromont, which includes partners from Huntersville and Arizona, wants to turn the land into 4 million square feet of upscale stores, hotels, offices and condominiums. They are offering a “carrot” to local officials: help in speeding up the widening of traffic-clogged I-77 and improvements for other roads nearby. They also want to add a highway exit at Westmoreland Road – a new Exit 27.
The developer wants to start the project in September 2009, and plans to take “5 to 10 years” to build it completely. But even if the Cornelius board approves it tonight, it still faces hurdles. Local, state and federal officials would have to approve all the road work and the complex financing the developer wants to use to pay for it.
ROADS AND OTHER AMENITIES
Partners Bromont Investments of Scottsdale, Arizona, and Carlsen Douglas Development of Huntersville say the project will bring major benefits.
Rendering shows the proposed project looking north, toward Westmoreland Road.
“This is intended to be the highest quality project in the region. It will bring an added quality and added amenity level to the area as well as much-needed transportation improvements,” said Josh Rector, the project manager.
Local officials throughout the area have been meeting to talk about ways to improve transportation, and the topic of I-77 widening has come up often. But the I-77 work is a couple of decades in the future on the state’s highway project priority list. Cornelius Bromont wants to do the project now, helping to arrange at least $80 million in financing.
Some would be in the form of loans to the developer. Some would be bonds or another type of public debt. Ultimately, some of the debt would be repaid when federal transportation funds become available at a future date. And some would be repaid through tax revenues. The developer is asking Cornelius to use a modified version of what’s called “Tax Increment Financing,” or TIF, which would dedicate future tax revenues that the project generates to pay off the debt.
Local officals are looking carefully at the proposal for the roadwork, particularly the I-77 widening. “There are some pluses and minuses in this mix of uses, but 77 will be the biggest carrot, from a road standpoint, that the board will consider. That will weigh some of the board members’ decisions, I’m sure,” Cornelius Town Manager Anthony Roberts said in an interview.
But the board also will be looking at the project’s size. It’s twice the size of the widely praised Birkdale Village in Huntersville, and denser. It’s bigger than Northlake Mall and probably similar in scope to Concord Mills.
“The density there is a key. Some people have described it as a Birkdale on steroids. It is mega. It actually compares to Concord Mills. … This is a mega project that we will probably never see again in Cornelius, size wise,” Mr. Roberts said.
The farmland that would become the project site most likely would be destined for smaller single-family residential developments, if it were to follow more traditional development patterns of the north Meck area.
The Cook family has lived and farmed in Cornelius for generations, and owns part of the land that would become the project site. Kenneth Cook remembers Cornelius before the highway, when Main Street seemed far away. He told the town board last month he feels compelled to sell.
“For many years I have been resisting many offers to sell the property. As much as I hate to admit it, I have come to realize that future generations of my family have no interest in farming. After this realization, and much careful thought, the families decided to consider the project presented by Bromont Cornelius,” Mr. Cook told the board.
He thinks the Cornelius Bromont proposal is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Other supporters agree. They say the Village at Lake Norman is a rare chance for Cornelius to snatch a major regional project that mixes shops, offices, and homes.
Bill Russell, president of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, said the Village is projected to generate an economic impact of $370 million and create 4600 jobs.
“I think a lot of people are looking forward to that type of high-scale retail that would be coming to the area, the office jobs that would be afforded by that, and again the transportation improvements,” Mr. Russell said.
He pulled no punches in saying just how big he thinks the project is to the region: “This would be the biggest thing to happen in Lake Norman since 1962, and that’s when we created the lake.”
The developers have been lobbying local officials and community groups for nearly 15 months. On February 1st, the Cornelius planning board unanimously endorsed it. And the town board has held an extended public hearing at meetings over the past several months, where the developers have argued their case and citizens on both sides of the issue have spoken out.
Opponents worry about traffic, the project’s sheer size, and whether the town should pay for the road improvements through future tax revenues.
Mark Puckett, who lives on Floral Lane not far from the project site, has asked the board to say no.
“It’s just too big, it’s too much. It’s not in harmony with its surroundings, it’s not compatible with the area. It’s not what we need in a small town. It’s not going to solve the traffic problems like the developer said it’s going to do,” Mr. Puckett said.
He thinks widening I-77 would eventually be a good thing, but “we don’t have to pay for it with property taxes from Cornelius and Mecklenburg County.” He says there’s too much uncertainty about the cost and the town’s role in paying it off. “It’s going to put us somewhere between 80 and 120 million dollars in debt, nobody really knows for sure. It’s just not something that we need to dive into right now,” he said.
Mr. Puckett also worries the town might not get everything promised. He once sat on the town Planning Board and remembers when it approved Liverpool, which was to be a “high-end, mixed-use retail, residential, and office” project. It’s south of West Catawba Avenue at Exit 28. “It came through the planning board in 1990. What we’ve ended up with after 18 years is a NASCAR shop and a go-cart track as the main anchors. … So every time developers come in and promise something, we hardly ever get what they promise.”
He worries: “We’re going to get four or five big box stores, we may get a few other stores, and we’re going to get a huge bill for widening 77 and building a new interchange that we don’t need.”
Cornelius commissioners have had many questions about the project, and held a special session Friday night, April 19, where they quizzed the development team about specifics.
Under the town’s courtroom-like zoning process, they’re not allowed to discuss the project with citizens or reporters.
Friday’s session likely helped the board to hammer out conditions it would attach to the project if it is approved – a sort of binding contract with the developer that would halt the project if the conditions are not met. Typically in Cornelius, an approved development has 10 or 15 conditions at most. Mr. Roberts said this project could have 50 complex conditions, spelling out everything from the project’s size to requiring other bodies to approve the road projects to mandating the developer’s proposed financial contributions for roads.
Officials in Davidson, Huntersville and other area towns are also watching the process closely, concerned that the Village of Lake Norman could have negative effects beyond town borders.
Huntersville town planner Zac Gordon said adding an exit would hurt his town’s plans for improving on and off ramps at Exit 25. In order to lengthen the exits, they must not be within 1 mile of another highway exit. But a new exit at Westmoreland Road would be too close.
“The Village at Lake Norman project I would compare … to a large boulder being dropped into a small pond, and the ripple effects from that, the waves from that boulder, are going to lap over the shores and have some significant impacts.”
If commissioners say yes to the Village, that’s no guarantee it will be built. The board likely would make the road improvements a requirement before it could go forward, and those improvements would need approvals from the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization as well as state and federal transportation officials.
“This is not the end of the line,” Mr. Gordon said. “I think everybody understands that. If this project is to be approved, there would be a number of conditions, not the last of which is the Federal Highway Administration approval for an interchange, (and) approval for the financing mechanism for the roadway improvements. … So those are two huge hurdles.”
The Cornelius board meets Monday, April 21, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall, Catawba Avenue in Cornelius.
Town of Cornelius project page, with site plan and planning staff analysis of the project
DavidsonNews.net’s David Boraks produced a 4½-minute radio feature on the project that aired Monday morning on WFAE-FM, 90.7, the Charlotte public radio affiliate. It’s available online at WFAE.org