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
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.
On the first Sunday in December, hundreds of children flock to the Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge to tell Santa their Christmas wishes. For the past six years, St. Nick’s role has been played by Ray Eschert, who’s known around the area as the unofficial mayor of Ballantyne. The sixty-five-year old Bronx native bears such an uncanny resemblance to Santa that the suit almost seems unnecessary. In 2001, Eschert founded the Ballantyne Breakfast Club, a community forum that meets six times a year at the Ballantyne Hotel.
“I thought it would be good to have some kind of forum to act as a clearinghouse for information,” he says. “The premise is, an informed community is a better community. I maintain a position of total neutrality for the club. I tell people I am Switzerland.”
Eschert is adamantly opposed to secession. But still, he arranged a Breakfast Club meeting to discuss the proposal and understand what forming a separate municipality would entail. The featured speaker was Oliver Porter, the man responsible for the incorporation of Sandy Springs, Georgia, as a city. The situations are not analogous since, unlike Ballantyne, Sandy Springs had never been part of Atlanta. Still, the group was eager to hear his take.
“He really gave us a very informed presentation,” recalls Eschert. “It involves millions of dollars and untold hours of work from people who can work on it full time. I think people walked away saying, ‘It’s not worth the aggravation.’ At the end of the day, there’s no guarantee that a new town is going to be any less expensive or better run.”
Talk to anyone engaged in this issue for more than five minutes and the words “crescent” and “wedge” come up. The phrase was first used last year by City Manager Curt Walton when he unveiled a plan to invest in Charlotte’s struggling areas. The plan—which was voted down by City Council—would have been paid for with an 8 percent property tax increase. Walton contrasted the affluent pie slice of south Charlotte, which accounts for a large share of tax revenues, with the struggling crescent-like swath that stretches from west Charlotte, north of uptown, and east to Independence Boulevard. Walton says that the gap between the haves and have-nots will only get wider if the city does not invest in struggling areas. What was meant to be a unifying proposal was particularly galling for SMART members.
“A lot of their dissatisfaction is that they don’t like anything that costs money,” says Eschert. “That’s growth. That’s the reality. The concept of creating a new town sounds exciting but it’s only going to be as good as Charlotte. I just don’t see how you rip that fabric apart and end up with something better. No city, no organization, no union or whatever is ever going to be stronger than its weakest part.”
Eschert’s views are in league with the vast majority of Ballantyne’s business leaders. They see uptown investment as crucial for the prosperity of the area.
“We’re a net donor to the balance of the city today, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” says Bissell CEO Ned Curran. “Being a part of Charlotte has a lot to do with Ballantyne’s success. Investments in the center city help Ballantyne immensely—the cultural arts district, sports venues, seat of government. If I took this to the extremes and everybody seceded, there wouldn’t be an arts center worth visiting.”
At the core of SMART’s dissatisfaction is the notion that Charlotte annexed the affluent area of Ballantyne against its will, merely for the tax revenue. Curran says that account does not square with history. “In 1997, when the city came in and said, ‘We want to annex Ballantyne’, there was no outrage on our part,” says Curran. “It was understood at the very beginning that we wanted to be part of the city.”
The idea of secession began with Jay Privette’s short-lived political campaign. The tall, slender chemical salesman relocated to Charlotte after twenty-three years in New Jersey. After retiring, Privette had more time to focus on his hobby—unearthing waste, fraud, and abuse in local government. Privette was convinced that the needs of Ballantyne residents were not being adequately addressed. Less than a month before the September 2011 primary, he jumped into the race to challenge District 7 City Councilman Warren Cooksey, a Republican, for his seat.
Privette’s complaints sound as if they were lifted directly from a Tea Party manifesto—staunch opposition to tax increases and investments in infrastructure and public transportation, and a demand for decentralized control of schools and revenue. His platform appealed to Timmerman, who later became a volunteer for his campaign. After Privette’s primary loss, the two began brainstorming about how they could have an impact on the city’s political structure without holding elected office.
In October 2011, they gathered a group of about forty south Mecklenburg residents at the Raintree Country Club off Pineville Matthews Road to vent their numerous frustrations about city government. The litany of complaints included taxes, the proposal to build low-income housing in the area, and the unfairness of heavily Republican districts being governed by a Democratic mayor and an overwhelmingly Democratic City Council.
“The time for talking is over. The time for action is here,” Timmerman told the group. “We’ve got to do something, or we’re just another group.”
In the end, the meeting proved long on heated rhetoric but short on agreement over a potential solution.
In late December, the fledgling organization began to coalesce around a plan proposed by Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James. James is known for making inflammatory statements, such as labeling gays as predators and blaming the rising rate of STDs on blacks who “live in a moral sewer.”
In a mass email entitled “Mecklenburg needs a new town of Ballantyne,” James wrote, “The area south of 51 between Matthews and Pineville—a large portion of which is known as Ballantyne, should be given the option to form their own town and self-govern. Because these folks are in the City they pay a large tax burden that Town residents don’t pay. Because they are mostly Republican they have zero say in City policy that is dominated by liberal Democrats that view them as merely a deep pocket to pay for their social programs.”
The suggestion seemingly came out of nowhere, and provided no “how-tos,” but it was the “aha!” moment for Privette and Timmerman. They would secede and form their own municipality called the Town of Providence. The name is a nod to the area’s history during another period of secession—1860—when it was known as Providence Township. The new town would include areas like Stonecrest and Piper Glen, considerably more land than what is generally considered Ballantyne.
James suggested Highway 51 as the dividing line, while others have called for the inclusion of everything south of McAlpine Creek. Depending on the final boundaries, the new town could include anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 people.
In mid-January 2012, SMART held its first official meeting at the South County Regional Library on Rea Road. Roughly forty people were in attendance, including James and Warren Cooksey. Cooksey mostly listened while James stoked the flames, reiterating the points he had made in his email.
“We’re basically a deep pocket to help pay for social programs and trinkets that benefit uptown,” James said. “We have no say in policy or how they spend our money. That needs to change, and this is the most direct and effective way to do it.”
The group became even more determined to go its own way in June, when the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board voted along party lines to appoint Amelia Stinson-Wesley, a minister, activist, and Democrat, to represent the Republican-leaning District 6. This was the final straw for SMART members, long dissatisfied with being under the CMS umbrella. The group devised a proposal to form its own independent school district. Local control, they argued, would make officials more responsive to resident needs.
Soon, they had developed a virtual charter and a declaration of intent to “request the General Assembly to free the citizens of South Mecklenburg so we can take control of our own destiny and the fruits of our labor.”
Bill McCoy was the director of the Urban Institute at UNC Charlotte for sixteen years. He also spent several years on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission. In his view, the mere fact that this talk of secession has gained a toehold in Ballantyne is emblematic of what sets that area apart from other wealthier communities of Charlotte.
“The theory of what Ballantyne is trying to do will be destructive to [North Carolina] cities,” he says. “People in Myers Park do not support this idea. They say,
‘Although we have wealth, we feel that there is an obligation to share this wealth to some degree in our community which we love.’ That’s what they have done for generations, and that’s what we hope they will continue to do.”
It’s possible that Ballantyne has no particular affinity for Charlotte because so few of its residents have Queen City roots, including the members of SMART. Transplants, particularly from larger, more expensive parts of the country, flock to the area because the public schools are good, houses are newer, and homes are half the price of those in Elizabeth or Dilworth.
Cindy Siesel grew up in Gastonia but has lived in Los Angeles, D.C., Atlanta, and Miami. She and her husband moved to Ballantyne in 2007 because it was an easy commute to her husband’s job in Rock Hill. On paper, it looked like a good fit, but the thirtysomething liberal Jewish mother of two was miserable. “It’s [a] little cult-like, and no one has broken the mold,” she says. “It’s great for people who want a cookie-cutter subdivision and suburbs, but I’m not a cookie-cutter kind of girl. And every place took thirty minutes to get to because you were at the end of the world!”
Siesel believes that Ballantyne seceding from Charlotte would be wrong and disastrous for the community. Following her divorce, she left Ballantyne earlier this year for a spot near her East Boulevard consignment shop. “I put my shop in Dilworth because I’m funky. I have to have some freak with me, and there’s just no freak in Ballantyne,” she says.
In the end, secession may turn out to be nothing more than a political pipe dream kept alive by a handful of determined but delusional south Charlotte residents. In addition to the many obstacles, creating a new city would not address the main frustrations expressed by people like Timmerman and Privette. For example, as long as Ballantyne remains a part of Mecklenburg County, its schools will remain under CMS control. Taxes on sales, food, and beverages are the same throughout the county. With the added burden of providing its own police, fire department, and water services, there is no guarantee that property taxes in the new town would be any lower.
The southern area of the city generates a significant chunk of Charlotte’s overall property tax base. If it somehow managed to break away, Charlotte would stand to lose about $56 million a year in tax revenue by some estimates. So don’t expect elected officials to take any moves to secede lightly. There is no formal way for Charlotte to block the separation but, as the largest city in the state, it wields a great deal of political clout in Raleigh.
McCoy says Charlotte would have lots of company in a fight to make sure Ballantyne stays right where it is. “Not just Charlotte, but every city, town, and village in the state will fight this,” he says. “Leaving would set a precedent that doesn’t really exist in this state. If Ballantyne leaves, then what’s next? If the scenario played out, then the city of Charlotte would be left with just the poor sections.”
Councilman Cooksey says his role remains that of an information officer, but he is frank with anyone who asks about the probability that this plan will ever move beyond the talking stage. “If you’re going to create a new city, you can’t do it by destroying Charlotte,” he says. “Bill [James] drops this idea without any reference to what is required, what it takes, what it involves. That’s the element that was missing from the conversation. Between where we are today and where anyone who wants a new city in south Charlotte is lies a very thick, overgrown, difficult-to-pass-through forest.”
Breaking up a city would require a three-fifths vote of support in both chambers of the General Assembly. With both houses of the legislature in Republican hands for the first time in a century, SMART members believe the landscape in the state capital may be more amenable to their wishes. The legislature has already made it more difficult for a city to annex surrounding areas without the approval of its citizens.
“The legislature is controlled by a different group than it has been historically, so the potential for changing the rules is much greater,” acknowledges McCoy.
“But the rules [for deannexation] have not been changed, and I don’t think it’s going to happen unless those rules do change in some core, dramatic way. It’s just fun talking about [it], but it isn’t going to happen.”
Melba Newsome is a freelance writer in Charlotte. For the September issue of this magazine, she profiled Charlotte Symphony Orchestra conductor Christopher Warren-Green.