Charlotte City Council member James Mitchell, who heads the economic development committee, said he wants city government involved in efforts to buy and preserve the historic Excelsior Club on Beatties Ford Road.
Speaking at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, Mitchell said he notified other council members Monday night — after council unanimously passed the city’s 2020 budget – and has scheduled a June 27 meeting before his committee.
Mitchell said he favors an approach that also would involve the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. What he does not favor, he said, is letting the property fall into the hands of private developers.
“If it gets into a private investor’s hands, I’m not sure it will meet the community needs,” Mitchell told Qcitymetro. “I do think that if you have government involved, the citizens feel like then they have a voice.”
The club was recently added to a list of some of the nation’s most endangered landmarks.
Storied past, uncertain future
The Excelsior Club was founded in 1944 and has been an entertainment and cultural landmark in Charlotte’s black community. During the era of Jim Crow segregation, it was one of the preeminent black-owned social clubs in the Southeast, hosting musicians including Nat “King” Cole and Louis Armstrong. It later became a requisite stop on the campaign trail of politicians seeking the city’s black vote.
The club fell into disrepair and closed its doors in 2016. Its owner, state Rep. Carla Cunningham, has been quoted as saying the building needs nearly $400,000 to address repairs and code violations.
The property was recently listed for sale at $1.5 million, according to New River Brokerage’s Facebook page.
Mitchell said he knew of at least two failed attempts to buy the historic landmark. One of those offers, for $1 million, came from a group of investors led by former state Sen. Joel Ford, Mitchell said. The other was from Mecklenburg County, for about $800,000, he said.
Ford confirmed to Qcitymetro that he and other investors did attempt to buy the Excelsior Club. He said the group would have used the property for “redevelopment and historic preservation.”
Is owner asking too much?
Some at the Breakfast Forum said efforts to rescue the property had been hampered by the asking price, which some argued is too high. Others noted the high prices paid for other properties along the Beatties Ford corridor and the burst of development now underway there, including work to extend the LYNX Gold Line streetcar from downtown past Johnson C. Smith University.
“It’s so much going on in that corridor,” Mitchell said. “I think it would be a disservice to see a bulldozer removing our history.”
Mitchell said too much of the public discussion so far had been centered on the property’s owner and her asking price. He noted that, when Foundation For The Carolinas approached the city about restoring the Carolina Theatre, a historic property in downtown, city council voted to sell the property to the foundation for $1 and later approved $4.5 million in tax dollars to help with restoration.
“We have history on our side,” Mitchell said. “If we appreciate things in our community, we will step up to the plate… I think this is just as significant as what we did for Carolina Theater.”
Mattie Marshall, president of Washington Heights Community Association, said elected leaders must not forget the role local government played in isolating historically black communities – noting especially the construction of Brookshire Boulevard, which dissected the communities of McCrorey Heights and Washington Heights.
” You owe us something,” she said. “You haven’t even apologized to the people that have been coming through the struggle all these years… So now is the time for the city and the county to step up and pay your debts.”
Michell said working with the county and other groups to save the Excelsior Club will not be a quick exercise, and he appealed for patience.
“Don’t leave here today feeling gloom,” he said. “I think you should leave here today feeling there is probably hope and there is some intentionality that the city and county will likely do something and do something right for the community.”
Glenn H. Burkins is founder and publisher of Qcitymetro. Read his bio. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org