CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - Charlotte city leaders are considering whether to try to save the Excelsior Club, long a cornerstone in Charlotte’s African American community, after other groups’ efforts faltered or were rejected by the club’s owner.
The club, owned by state Rep. Carla Cunningham, closed in 2016. The building is in disrepair, and Cunningham listed it and the two adjacent lots for sale in April for $1.5 million.
Other recent efforts to purchase the club did not pan out, an Observer review of public records and interviews found. Cunningham turned down offers from a group led by a former state senator, and also from the county.
At Monday night’s city council meeting, council members directed staff to look into how the city could get involved in saving the site. The extent of the city’s involvement remains unclear though. The council intends to discuss the Excelsior project during its June 27 economic development committee meeting.
It’s the first time the city council has considered stepping in to help preserve the club, a decision that has until now been in the Mecklenburg County commissioners’ hands.
“I do think we need to play a role,” councilman James Mitchell told political leaders and community members at a Tuesday breakfast meeting. “There’s so much momentum in that corridor, and I think it would be a disservice if you drive by there and you see a bulldozer removing our history.”
Last year, Cunningham filed paperwork to allow for the building’s potential demolition. Because it’s a historic landmark, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission postponed the date that demolition could occur for a year, but the delay expired Wednesday.
Cunningham said she doesn’t intend to tear down the club. But, because the property has been deemed unsafe by the city, it can direct her to.
The city has not issued any demolition order, Keith Richardson, assistant director for the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Services department, said in an email.
The club, off of Beatties Ford Road, opened in 1944 and was a hub of African American social and political life in Charlotte for decades. Last month, it was placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the 11 most endangered historic places in the country. But that wouldn’t prevent demolition.
This is not the first time local government has considered helping save the former club.
In October, Mecklenburg County commissioners rejected spending $4,000 on an exclusive option to buy the building, which would have given the Historic Landmarks Commission a year to find a buyer or purchase the property. The commissioners found the asking price of $350,000, which was just for the lot the club sits on, to be too high when combined with the more than half a million dollars needed to repair it, former commissioner Bill James told the Observer at the time.
But in a February meeting, several commissioners expressed interest in continuing discussions around preserving the club.
“Maybe we have to think about that the importance of preserving it for the community is more important than worrying about whether the owner is going to make money on the property,” commissioner Trevor Fuller said in the meeting. “...I think we’ve got to step up to the plate. Or face the forever cost of losing it. And it being on our watch.”
In March, commissioners — four of whom are newly elected — unanimously voted to direct the county manager to negotiate with Cunningham for the purchase of the site and report back to the board, according to minutes of a closed session meeting that the Observer recently obtained through an open records request.
The Foundation for the Carolinas also offered to help the county purchase the former club. Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of the foundation, declined to say how much his organization would have covered.
Marsicano said after he read last October that commissioners voted against the option to buy the Excelsior, he became concerned it might not be saved. He said the foundation’s board voted to contribute money to help preserve it.
But it’s difficult to raise money for a project like the Excelsior, Marsicano said, because there’s no plan for what the building will become. He had hoped that if the foundation and the county purchased the property, it would buy time for the community to come up with a vision for its future.
County spokesman Rick Christenbury declined to say how much Mecklenburg offered Cunningham, and it was not clear from the closed-session minutes.
Joel Ford, the former state senator, said he had gathered private developers and community leaders and made an offer of $1 million, independent of the county offer.
“If you take a look at the community as a whole, there are not a lot of things that are left that date that far back to African American history in the city of Charlotte,” he said. “I thought it was a worthy enough initiative to reach out to a group of private investors.”
Ford said while he and the other investors didn’t come up with a specific plan for the property once they purchased it, he had hoped redevelopment would include job and workforce development opportunities for the community.
Cunningham said she rejected offers from both Ford’s group and the county because they weren’t close enough to her asking price.
“Every offer that comes before me, I look at it, and then I say, is it possible that i could negotiate in that space,” she said.
She said she’s had three or four offers on the property that she turned down for now.
Cunningham said the price she’s asking for is partially based on its location, near Washington Heights in west Charlotte, and the future growth of the area. She cited the streetcar coming to the neighborhood, the access to major highways and proximity to downtown.
“That area is being gentrified very rapidly,” she said. “I grew up in Smallwood. I went down in that area and there’s $400,000 houses going up ... And they’ve already started coming into Washington Heights as well.”
Councilman Mitchell said his goal is for the city, county and other players to partner and make an offer on the site.
“I’ve always been a strong advocate that If it gets into a private investor’s hand, I’m not sure that it would meet the community needs,” he said. “I do think if you have government involved, the citizens feel like then they have a voice.”
Mitchell pointed to the city’s involvement with the renovation of the 92-year-old Carolina Theatre. The city sold the theater, which is now undergoing a $40 million revamp, to the foundation in 2012 for $1. Mitchell said the Excelsior Club is just as significant.
“We got history on our side,” he said.
The city offers grants for small businesses, developers and property owners in redevelopment corridors, which include Beatties Ford Road. Mitchell suggested that facade grants, offered as part of the redevelopment corridor program, could be used to help subsidize the preservation of the Excelsior.
City councilman Braxton Winston said Charlotte should develop a policy for its priorities around investing in property — whether its to preserve historic buildings like the Excelsior or to promote affordable housing.
““This is a great example: this is a changing neighborhood,” he said. “There’s historic value in this and preserving the character of the neighborhood as those changes happen. I think there are definitely possibilities with the property, the structure, to provide jobs in a part of the city that we’ve been trying to reinvigorate over time.”
At Tuesday’s breakfast, Mattie Marshall, president of the Historic Washington Heights area, said local leaders owe the community after the construction of the Brookshire Freeway, near where the Excelsior is located. The freeway’s construction split historically-black neighborhoods years ago.
“You haven’t even apologized to the people, that’s been coming through this struggle all these years,” she said. “So now is the time for the city and county to step up and pay your debts.”