Mr. Hatcher’s Neighborhood
One man holds the keys to Plaza Midwood’s future, and no one knows what he’s thinking
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John Cole Hatcher doesn’t make it easy to find his office. Visitors must drive past Sammy’s Deli, past Yoga One, and behind a satellite campus of Metrolina Association for the Blind.
This is the former Cole Manufacturing complex, a cluster of regal, red-brick buildings at the corner of Central and Pecan, built in 1911 by the best architect in town. A century later, they still boast arched windows and black outdoor staircases that call to mind fire escapes in Brooklyn.
At the back of the complex, in a single-story building with dark windows and metal doors that belong on a bank vault, sits John Hatcher Realty. The front entrance is not marked, except for a parking space guarded by a sign: “Don’t even think about parking here.”
All of the buildings and all of the asphalt in the complex belong to Hatcher. He and his company, Cole Properties & Investments, own at least 13 properties in the neighborhood, making him enormously influential. But he’s also widely resented, filling the role of a near-mythical villain in this corner of the city. “He single-handedly helps or hurts a lot of businesses over here,” says Bob Smithwick, president of the local business association, Plaza Midwood Merchants.
Hatcher’s office smells of stale cigarettes. There are Trout magazines on the coffee table in the waiting room and a plaque on the wall honoring members of the Cole family, Hatcher’s relatives. After his mother’s death in 1980, he sold Cole Manufacturing and opened his realty company three years later.
His office manager, Linda, has weary eyes and faded hair. She offers a cheery greeting but grows guarded at the words “Hatcher” and “development.” He’s out until July 1, she explains. Four days from now. She takes a message, but the look on her face suggests a response is unlikely.
Hatcher doesn’t live in Plaza Midwood. Property records show that he owns a five bedroom house in southeast Charlotte. When he’s not home, he’s probably on the water. One of the few things outsiders know about his personal life is that he loves fishing. His profile photo on Facebook shows a gray-bearded, grandfatherly looking man sitting on a boat, grinning as he holds up an enormous catch.
He started buying Plaza Midwood properties in the 1970s. People who have lived and worked in the neighborhood for decades say he’s always been ornery. His tenants are afraid to anger him. If you have a concern about one of his properties, there’s no use trying to reason with him. “I think it’s all bottom-line driven,” says Brian Wilson, who co-owns the Beaver with his brother. “He’s very rigid.”
Of course, Hatcher must have some redeeming qualities. In April, for example, his company donated space to host the Friends of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library book sale. And Wilson says that when he sees Hatcher out on the town, the landlord is not overtly rude. “He’s always been cordial to us and told us he likes us,” Wilson says. “He’s clearly said it’s just business, and he can draw a line between the two.”
But finding someone to enumerate Hatcher’s virtues is difficult. His daughter doesn’t respond to a request for comment. Justin Bennett, a bartender at the Beaver, says he talked to 50 to 75 people who have “associated with” Hatcher, and no one had anything positive to say. Even Hatcher’s friend and fellow landlord, John Rudolph, struggles to answer questions about what Hatcher’s like, or how he’s given back to the community. “I’m gonna have a hard time doin’ that,” Rudolph says, explaining that he doesn’t know Hatcher that well.
Up until 2009, Hatcher was still buying property. Then, like the rest of the real estate world, he waited out the recession and looked forward to the moment when the neighborhood would come into its own.
“He’s inflammatory. He’ll not only say no to you; he’ll go out of his way to say, ‘F--- you,’” says Jessica Summers, a Thirsty Beaver regular with sunglasses perched on her head and her hands wrapped around a Miller High Life.
The 32-year-old works in the neighborhood, and her beef with Hatcher is about parking. Parking has become a touchy subject in Plaza Midwood, an area known for its vintage stores, tattooed residents, and proud defiance of uptown’s corporate trends. With a mix of artsy bars, live music, and eclectic restaurants, the area has become a sought-after neighborhood for young professionals. “When I bought over here [in 2007], people were like, ‘You’re crazy. That’s a fringy area,’” Rudolph says. “Hopefully it’ll always maintain the edginess to it.”
When the Peculiar Rabbit opened on Pecan Avenue last year, city rules required the restaurant to provide parking for its customers. Instead of building another lot, the owner worked out a deal with Hatcher to rent some of the spaces in his shopping plaza. This means that on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, customers must pay $5 to park in what for years had been considered free lots. In exchange, the Peculiar Rabbit gives its customers 10 percent back on their bills, up to $5. The venture hasn’t been popular. At least 250 people signed a petition on Change.org asking Rob Nixon, owner of the Peculiar Rabbit, and Hatcher to “stop charging for parking in previously free lots.”
“Greed has no place in Plaza Midwood. WE SHARE!” wrote petitioner Austin Caine.
“Friendly neighborhood environment headed in the wrong commercial direction,” added Karisa Pennell. “If I want to pay to park, I’ll head uptown.”
After the Rabbit uproar, Smithwick says the merchants association (PMM) heard that Hatcher would be limiting parking in other parts of his lots. So the association wrote Hatcher a letter, asking if they could work out a deal so other businesses could pay to use his parking spaces. “I’m not interested,” came the reply. Hatcher said his tenants needed the spaces.
This was not the first time that Smithwick had tried to discuss parking with Hatcher, and not made much progress. “I don’t think he’s had any contact with the PMM ... since I’ve been working with the PMM, which has been a couple of years,” Smithwick says. But the businessman hasn’t given up hope. “We would love for him to be involved.”