By DAVID BORAKS
Cornelius Commissioners held a closed-door meeting Friday with N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker, in part to discuss potential development of the failed Augustalee site off US 21/Statesville Road.
Town officials learned last weekend that owners of the 104-acre site had hired a development firm and are studying how to develop the property. But whether the project ever happens could hinge on construction of a new interchange at Westmoreland Road, Mile 27 off I-77.
So town officials brought in Decker, whom they hope can help win support for an eventual Exit 27. Decker said there’s hope, especially since the governor’s new “mobility formula” for highway funding considers economic development as a factor in funding decisions.
The timing is important because state officials are in the midst of considering the I-77 HOT lanes widening project, which calls for replacing the Westmoreland Road bridge over I-77. Local officials want to make sure any new bridge is wide enough to accommodate a future interchange, even if it isn’t built right away.
The site, once the Cooke family farm, had been approved for the massive Augustalee mixed-use development in 2008. Plans called for upscale shops, luxury housing and offices. But Fifth Third Bank foreclosed on the property when the original developers failed to make required progress on the project.
In 2012, the land sold for more than $7 million to a group called Augustalee Capital Partners of Concord. The group includes executives from marketing firm ACN Corp., according to the Charlotte Business Journal.
Friday’s closed-door meeting was called to discuss an unspecified economic development project, but during a bus tour of town afterward and during a press conference later, several speakers mentioned the site.
A new Exit 27 also could provide access to another development site – 86 acres on the west side of I-77 across from Augustalee, officials said.
Decker said the development’s future is linked to the highway project.
“Over the next five years this piece of property is going to develop, and the HOT lanes project is happening now,” she told CorneliusNews.net in an interview. “There are an awful lot of projects happening simultaneously.”
Decker said the site would help solve a critical need for “product,” development ready sites or even buildings that could be shown to businesses seeking to locate here. “We are in need of product in North Carolina, particularly on the north side of Charlotte,” she said.
Commissioner Chuck Travis also said the interchange is critical to successful development at Westmoreland and US 21.
“Exit 27 is the key to everything we talked about today. Without it, nothing works,” he said.
Don Harrow, the town of Cornelius’s economic development consultant explained that the Westmoreland overpass is now two lanes. It’s expected to be replaced as part of the I-77 widening project, but he and other officials want to make sure it’s wide enough to accommodate an interchange. He said it would need to be at least five lanes.
Nobody who spoke Friday gave any hint about exactly what might be developed on the former Augustalee site. But, Travis hinted, “It’s going to be a whole new concept.”
Among those involved in Friday’s meeting were state and town officials and business leaders, including Bill Russell, head of the Lake Norman Chamber; Jeff Edge, a business recruiter with the Charlotte Chamber; and representatives from development firm Lincoln Harris.
Ryan McDaniels, executive director of the Lake Norman Economic Regional Development Corp., and Harrow led a post-meeting bus tour of potential development sites around town.
Mayor Lynette Rinker said Friday’s meeting was a chance to tout Cornelius sites to people who are recruiting businesses to North Carolina.
“What we’re doing is showcasing the opportunities for development in Cornelius,” Mayor Lynette Rinker said after the tour. She said the town is trying “to take economic development into our own hands.”