There's Something About Ballantyne
Love it or hate it, the suburb on steroids known as Ballantyne tends to inspire strong feelings from Charlotteans. Now, a small group of true believers—or nonbelievers—want Ballantyne to secede from the city and form a new town
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On most Wednesdays, Jay Privette, Tim Timmerman, Rick Stieber, and John Powell can be found at Brigs, a casual breakfast spot sandwiched between an Earth Fare and a dry cleaner in the Toringdon Market strip mall in Ballantyne. The men represent the core of the South Mecklenburg Alliance of Responsible Taxpayers (SMART), a political advocacy group formed to push for more autonomy and local control over the taxes paid by south Charlotte residents.
“I don’t mind paying my fair share of taxes, but I do mind getting exploited,” says Timmerman, a retired Army colonel and the head of the group. “We see a narrow focus in this city, and it’s uptown. The absolute neglect, exploitation, and abuse of people down here has got to stop!”
He has given this same spiel many times over the past two years to anyone who will listen. For months, it was simply a rant, but about a year ago, the SMART guys finally came up with a solution, albeit a radical one: dissolve all political ties with Charlotte, create a town council, elect a mayor, and form their own municipality.
At breakfast on October 12, they are excited about the SMART forum held the night before and attended by about twenty candidates for state, local, and congressional office seeking their support. They see this as a sign of their growing political influence. “The candidates were very positive, particularly the state candidates,” Timmerman says. “They say, ‘Get us a legislation package and we’ll push it.’ The next step is to produce some potential legislation. When you get involved, then you get action.”
Earlier this year, state senator Bob Rucho, a Republican who represents the Ballantyne area, voiced his openness to the idea. “If they were to approach me, I would do what I could to assist them in that manner,” he said.
“We’ve gotta give them political cover for doing this,” Privette says. “To do that, we have to get the people here behind us.”
John Powell is a local actor and the group’s youngest member. “Down here we’re overtaxed and underrepresented and, to make it worse, this entire area was forcibly annexed,” he says. “Our goal is to give the vote to people to decide whether they want to be part of Charlotte or not.”
So far, the answer seems to be an overwhelming yes. But SMART members remain convinced that Ballantyne can secede.
At the southwest corner of Ballantyne Commons and Johnston Road stands a thirty-foot monument to Charlotte and its history in transportation. The intricate carvings at the top represent some of the many things that have made Charlotte a crossroads for trade and migration: a depiction of Cameron Morrison, known as the Good Roads Governor; the Wright brothers’ plane, a nineteenth-century trolley, and Charlotte’s first train station.
Monuments on the other three corners—the first thing most people notice when they enter Ballantyne proper—represent technology, finance, and the human spirit of Charlotte. The sculptures are the work of Boris Tomic, a Yugoslav artist who spent three years crafting them at a brick factory in Salisbury. Commissioned by developer Johnny Harris to acknowledge Ballantyne’s connection with and commitment to its Charlotte roots, the artwork has unwittingly come to represent a dividing line between Ballanytne and the rest of the city.
All Charlotte communities develop their own identities over time. Historic Dilworth is known for its bungalows and quirky retailers. SouthPark is high-end shopping on steroids. Myers Park represents affluence and old money, and Plaza Midwood is where hippie meets yuppie.
Distinguishable personalities are less common in the suburbs, where so many neighborhoods look like they were created using an off-the-shelf planning-and-design kit. But in the fifteen years since businesses and residences began sprouting in the south Charlotte development, the name Ballantyne has become shorthand not just for upscale suburban living but also for the mini-city that does its own thing. Maybe that’s because it sprang up out of nowhere around an interstate that didn’t even exist twenty years ago. Or because it lies at the outer edge of Mecklenburg County and is closer to South Carolina than uptown.
Wide thoroughfares link planned residential communities filled with starter castles to the Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge and its golf course, Ballantyne Country Club, Ballantyne Corporate Park, and Ballantyne Village, with its shops and restaurants. The assortment of chain restaurants, pharmacies, movie theaters, bank branches, and strip malls scream suburbia.
For most Charlotteans, just the name provokes a strong response. Many see it as the best of what suburbia has to offer. Others view it as an insular enclave with little to make it unique.
Sonya Barnes falls into the latter category. She and her husband moved to Ballantyne in 1998 for the schools. Their two sons were preteens. Her plan was to move to Elizabeth or Plaza Midwood when they finished high school. Fourteen years later, her boys are college graduates, and she and are husband are still there, living in a house she says is much too big while lamenting the sanitized perfection of their surroundings almost daily.
“Folks here think they have died and gone to nouveau riche heaven,” says Barnes. “Every child is in soccer. Every mom drives an SUV, shops at the Harris Teeter, attends the same church, and takes Zumba at the Morrison Y. It’s Wisteria Lane.”
Ballantyne is the part of south Charlotte area outside of the I-485 loop between Rea Road to the east and Pineville to the west. It began when each of the three Harris siblings—Johnny, Cameron, and Sara, the grandchildren of famed North Carolina governor Cameron Morrison—inherited an equal share of the family’s hunting preserve.
Before the early 1990s, developers expressed little interest in the sprawling, remote patch of land. Johnny Harris and his brother-in-law, Smoky Bissell, were business partners and developers for decades until opting to go their separate ways in the early 1990s. When Harris got the idea to develop the acreage, he quietly acquired surrounding lands from neighbors and farmers until he had about 2,000 acres. He mapped out his vision for Ballantyne and went through a long and costly process to have it commercially rezoned. (Another developer, Crescent Resources, had already purchased the 610 acres that would later become the Ballantyne Country Club and the accompanying residential development.)
A few years later, Johnny and Cameron Harris decided that selling the property would be preferable to developing it themselves. At the time, Bissell had never expressed any interest in the project or even visited the site. However, in October 1995, he offered to buy out his brothers-in-law’s shares for $20 million. Bissell believed the land was the perfect site for a corporate park to rival anything he had developed in SouthPark.
Years later, his bet has paid off. Named for Bissell’s aunt, Barbara Ballantyne, the development has proved to be one of the most successful in the Southeast. But that doesn’t mean it is ready or even willing to strike out on its own and sever ties with the city that gave rise to it.