Saving Mooresville

The battle to save quaint downtown Mooresville from creeping sprawl appears to be at a standstill. But NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, among others, are revving their engines

Written by‘Sam Boykin
Photographs by Chris Edwards

Mention Mooresville to Charlotteans, and they're likely to think of one of two things: NASCAR and often nightmarish stop-and-go traffic. But just a few miles east of the interstate, away from all the strip malls and fast food joints, sits Mooresville's historic downtown. It appears quaint and picturesque, with pedestrian-friendly sidewalks lined with small boutiques and mom-and-pop operations. It's also trying to grow up.

High hopes: Local developers hope to add next spring a coffee shop, art gallery, and martini bar to the tenants on Main Street. (Chris Edwards)

High hopes: Local developers hope to add next spring a coffee shop, art gallery, and martini bar to the tenants on Main Street. (Chris Edwards)

Several developers, as well as famous NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, are forging ahead with projects designed to give the homey yet sluggish downtown area a boost. Town officials agree that new development is necessary to once again make downtown vital, but they're determined to proceed with caution to ensure the area retains its historic charm. Others say Mooresville is already lagging behind, and leaders need to exercise a little less caution and a little more vision and leadership. It's a classic story that's repeating itself in ring towns all around Charlotte—how to take advantage of growth without being swallowed by it.  

Situated just past the Iredell County line, Mooresville is about a thirty-minute drive from uptown Charlotte. Like many small Southern towns, the textile industry helped it grow and prosper. By the 1930s nearly 500 homes had been built in the downtown area to provide housing for mill workers. But as the textile industry faded away and the last of the mills closed, Mooresville turned to its auto-racing heritage. Today, it's the headquarters for more than sixty professional auto-racing teams, earning it the nickname "Race City USA." Lowe's Companies Inc. is also based in Mooresville. From 1990 to 2005, Mooresville's population nearly doubled, to 23,617 residents.


Most of this explosive growth occurred around Lake Norman and along the I-77 corridor. The downtown area became stagnant. But it's starting to show signs of life. A smattering of new retailers has opened, including an art gallery, a home décor boutique, a wine shop, an ice cream shop, and even a tattoo parlor. These sit alongside Whit-Miller Shoe Store and Repair, which has been in business more than eighty years, and D.E. Turner Hardware Store, which opened in 1899. A handful of other business owners are helping spruce up the look of downtown by restoring their building's facades with new windows, awnings, and paint. And the Mooresville Downtown Commission hosts various events throughout the year to help bolster the area, including the Cruise-in Classic Car Show.

"We have in downtown Mooresville what others have spent millions of dollars to re-create," says Bob Amon, who was chairman of the Mooresville Planning Board for twenty-one years and owns three buildings off Main Street. "We have these walkable streets and old buildings with so much character. But the only way we can compete is to offer more unique shops and specialty stores that you're not going to find at a strip mall or at a big-box retailer."

Echoing this sentiment is Miles and Kim Atkins. The couple moved to Mooresville from Charlotte's Elizabeth neighborhood three years ago. Miles now serves as chair for the Mooresville Historic Preservation Commission and Kim is the Downtown Commission chairwoman. They're working with several developers to create a vision for downtown Mooresville, which they stress will be less like Birkdale and more like NoDa or South End, with funky, independent boutiques and shops as opposed to generic chain stores. "Birkdale is great, but Main Street has a walkability and charm above and beyond what you can build today," says Kim.

One of the development companies helping Mooresville reinvent itself is Old Downtown LLC. The company initially started as a two-man operation, with developer Howard Kosofsky and his son, Damon. Howard says they launched the company with plans to introduce a unique mix of destination tenants to help create a thriving yet still old-fashioned downtown. Two other partners, Charlie Caputo and Steve McGlothin, came onboard. Finally, a chance encounter earlier this year at a Mooresville car wash between Howard Kosofsky and NASCAR driver Kurt Busch resulted in the motorsports celebrity partnering with the development group as well.

"When Howard mentioned downtown Mooresville, my eyes lit up," says Busch, who moved to Mooresville with his wife, Eva, in 2003. "I love retro things like cool old cars and funky little shops and restaurants—it's a passion of mine. So I see this as a small business venture that in the long term will help make a big difference. Mooresville has a lot going for it, and I like the idea of being a part of something that my kids will one day be able to enjoy."

First on Old Downtown's list: the half-a-million-dollar renovation of the Gabriel Building. Prominently situated on the corner of Main Street and Moore Avenue next to the Charles Mack Citizen Center, the two-story, 16,000-square-foot building was built in 1929. The group removed fifteen feet from the front of the building to accommodate open-air seating for a planned restaurant and help spark other outdoor activities. Kosofsky says they also hope to have a coffee shop and perhaps an art gallery in place by next spring. They plan to convert the upstairs to office space, or perhaps even a martini bar. They currently have one signed tenant, Angels' Flight, a children's theater group.
The group also owns the building formerly occupied by Cool Breeze Cyclery on Main Street, in which they've invested about $125,000 in renovations, and have an upscale kitchen store and cooking school called Savvy Chef lined up as a tenant. They recently purchased a third building and Kosofsky says they're on the lookout for others.

"It's not often a team of guys comes in and helps bring a town up to speed," Kosofsky says. "We're investing our time and energy into Mooresville, and it's for the long term."

Mooresville Mills is another potential high-impact project. David Rogers of Rogers and Associates, in partnership with Cherokee Investments, plans to renovate the old Burlington Industries Mill site into a $300 million mixed-use development with residential, retail, and office space. Situated along N.C. Highway 115 about two blocks south of downtown, the forty-acre Mooresville Mills site is surrounded by hundreds of mill homes, many in disrepair. Rogers, who was instrumental in helping renovate downtown Rock Hill, says the mill project will help revitalize not only the century-old mills complex, but downtown Mooresville as well. "This is the front door to downtown Mooresville, and town officials recognize it's a blighted area, and something needs to be done," Rogers says. "It's ripe for change."
While Kosofsky and Rogers are optimistic, other developers feel stonewalled by the town political leadership. Developer Tom Kilroe says Mooresville officials have been so slow and indecisive about committing to a cohesive plan they've damaged the town's reputation and squandered many opportunities. He tried for years to build a mixed-use development called 100 North Church Street in downtown, but to no avail.

"We as developers and property investors have seen the surrounds grow by leaps and bounds, and it threatens to take away the very identity of downtown Mooresville," says Kilroe. "People don't even know it exists. What is it going to take to get this town to focus and figure out what they need in terms of a theme, image, and direction?"

Kilroe first tried to develop 100 North Church Street in partnership with Cornerstone Real Estate Development about five years ago. It was originally planned as an $8 million to $10 million mixed-use project with condos, offices, and retail. Plans also called for a private-public partnership with the town of Mooresville to build an adjacent parking deck. At first the town committed to the project, but as the costs to build the deck swelled—according to Kilroe, the number of parking spaces needed nearly doubled—Mooresville council members pulled out in 2004. The council instead hired a consultant to seek alternate sites for a downtown parking garage, a move that Kilroe says left him "standing dead in the water. But we regrouped, adjusted our plans, and continued to move forward."

But Kilroe says that the town council then started acting "wishy-washy" about supporting other projects crucial to making downtown a desirable place to live, such as the proposed light rail and renovation of a train depot and park.

"The credibility for downtown Mooresville started to slide away, and investors started to lose confidence," Kilroe says. By 2006, as momentum for 100 North Church Street continued to dwindle, he was forced to return the deposits of retail and residential customers who secured spots. The project is now "hibernating," says Kilroe, as town officials continue to try to decide what they want.

"The so-called Mooresville revitalization has been at the brink of taking off for nearly ten years, but they can't seem to pull the trigger," Kilroe says. "There's nobody at the helm; there's nobody steering the boat."

"Everybody is entitled to their opinion," responds Mooresville Mayor Bill Thunberg. "I like Mr. Kilroe, but reasonable minds can differ on things." Thunberg, who was elected in fall 2005, says that each project has to stand on its own. "I have no control, nor does the town, of market forces. Maybe it wasn't time for his vision. There are winners and losers even in the best of times."

Much of the groundwork for Mooresville's future was outlined in 2000 when the town consulted with architecture and planning firm the Lawrence Group, which developed a master plan for Mooresville's downtown. The firm's plan was developed using much-ballyhooed "new urbanism" principles. It recommended that Mooresville's downtown should be compact and pedestrian friendly, with mixed-use development that incorporates smaller specialty shops and restaurants, along with upper-level residential units and office space. As the master plan itself says, this type of development is hardly revolutionary, but it is "evolutionary," and it's a template that seems to be working elsewhere. Yet it's been seven years since the plan was completed, and not much has changed.  

"We've been working it, and believe it or not we're pretty much on schedule," says Wayne T. Frick, executive director of Mooresville's Downtown Commission. "But we've had to continuously update the plan as the town's had to improve things like sidewalks, utilities, and parking.

"People have to understand we're a work in progress," Frick continues. "But over the past year or so a number of downtown properties have been sold and are now in the hands of people who are financially able to upgrade and nurture them as the downtown continues to evolve."

Ron Johnson, who is on the Mooresville Downtown Commission and is chairman of the Convention and Visitor Center, has operated his finance company on Main Street since 1969. "Like most small towns, Mooresville has not been quick enough to jump on projects as some merchants would like," says Johnson. "But it's the same in Mooresville as anywhere else—officials have to look at needs of the whole town rather than just one isolated part. But the best part about downtown is that we're moving in the right direction."

The biggest obstacles Mooresville faces in reinventing its downtown are, as is often the case, politics and resources. But Craig Lewis, managing principal with the Lawrence Group, which created Mooresville's master plan, believes the town is at a point where the momentum it's already created will help it succeed regardless of such obstacles. He points out that the town has already made significant physical improvements, and it's now starting to make progress in terms of marketing and image.

"A lot of things are converging downtown that are going to happen regardless of political leadership or resources," says Lewis, who has also completed master plans for downtown Wake Forest, Pineville, and Huntersville (none of which, it can be said, are known for vital downtowns). "Developers recognize that downtown Mooresville has such a strong set of bones that they're moving forward in spite of politics. It's not only the right thing to do, but it's the right place, and the right time."

Categories: Buzz > Business