In the end, it all came down to economics.
That was the message delivered Wednesday by Charlotte attorney James Ferguson when he met with reporters to explain the uncertain future now facing the historic Excelsior Club, an icon of Charlotte’s black community.
The club’s mortgage holder, state Rep. Carla Cunningham, began foreclosure proceedings last week after Ferguson fell behind in his scheduled payments. The club also owes more than $174,000 in unpaid taxes.
Ferguson, who bought the club in 2005 from Cunningham’s late husband, Rep. Pete Cunningham, closed the Excelsior in June to make some upgrades. He said he had every intention of opening it again this spring.
So far, that has not happened.
“Unfortunately, the challenges of renovation and upgrading proved to be too great for the resources available to us,” he said, “and we were unable to meet our projected schedule for the reopening.”
With the club effectively shut down, Ferguson said, bills began to mount.
Standing in the club’s parking lot surrounded by family and more than a dozen supporters, Ferguson said he would like to see the Excelsior reopen.
“We do not have to be the owners for the club to succeed,” he said. “We will be supportive of any ownership entity, including ours, that serves the best interest of the club and the best interests of the community.”
In a statement posted on Facebook, Carla Cunningham said she, too, would like to “maintain the Historical Preservation of The Historic Excelsior Club.”
An iconic of black Charlotte
For the better part of 73 years, the Excelsior has occupied a singular space in Charlotte’s black community. The club opened in 1944 after its original owner, Jimmie McKee, bought a seven-room, two-story house in Washington Heights for $3,510 and transformed it into a private club.
During the dark days of Jim Crow segregation, when blacks were not permitted to enter white-owned clubs, the Excelsior became a go-to spot for a generation of Charlotte’s black elite.
In its heyday, the club hosted legendary acts such as Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. It also was the place where, in 2009, hundreds came, as if by instinct, to erect a wall of flowers mourning the death of pop star Michael Jackson.
On Wednesday, Ferguson recalled some of the happier times he had as owner.
“We enjoyed Tuesday night fish, Dirty Thirty Thursday and the Friday and Saturday night parties,” he said. “We have looked forward to the many election night celebrations, including the first and second election celebrations for the first African American president of the United States, Barack Obama, in 2008 and 20012.”
Behind the scene, financial pressures were building.
According to The Charlotte Observer, Ferguson’s company, HKL Inc., and the Excelsior face more than $166,000 in federal tax liens, and nearly $8,000 in unpaid Mecklenburg County taxes and judgments. Most of the unpaid taxes date from June 2015, a year before the club closed.
And in February 2016, four months before the club closed for remodeling, city inspectors found an extensive list of code violations, including a falling ceiling, unsafe wiring and structural problems. On Jan. 20, the club faces civil penalties of $12,800, the newspaper reported.
Cunningham suggested that the financial problems may have started earlier. She told the Observer she agreed in 2014 to lower HKL’s monthly mortgage payments from around $6,000 a month to $4,000. Since then, she said, payments have been late and calls sometimes not returned.
“It is unfortunate that a business decision of this nature had to be made in order to restore some stability back to the business and community of the property,” she said in the statement.
No experience as club owner
Ferguson told reporters he had no experience with club ownership when he “reluctantly agreed” to buy the Excelsior at the behest of Cunningham’s husband, who died in 2010.
Since then, he said, he has faced both challenges and rewards – “The challenges have been many; the rewards few,” he said.
As for the Excelsior’s future, Cunningham said she will be guided by business principles, not public pressure.
“Please know I am a mother and a business woman and will be making decisions regarding this issue prioritizing my family first,” she said. “Know as well this is a difficult decision but one that had to be made…”
The Rev. Ricky A. Woods, whose First Baptist Church-West sits just a few blocks east of the club, recalled that McKee, the club’s original owner, was a member of his congregation. He also noted the historic role the Excelsior has played in the life of west Charlotte.
“I’m hoping they can work something out and the club will continue to be able to operate,” he said. “We would love to be able to hold on to it. There is too much property leaving our hands in the Historic West Side.”