Charlotte's University City boasts an expanding business community with 75,000 employees, 11 million square feet of office space, and regional offices for 23 Fortune 500 companies. In 2018, the LYNX blue line extension was completed, connecting the area with light rail public transit. Darlene Heater, Executive Director of University City Partners, joins us to talk about this growing business district, the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and what lies ahead.
I’m Jeffrey Jones, Director of Executive Education and Professional Development at UNC Charlotte, and this is Charlotte Business Buzz. Connecting the Queen City’s business community … From the Belk College of Business at UNC Charlotte.... This is Charlotte Business Buzz. Businesses across the Charlotte region are feeling the impact of COVID-19, including those in the growing area of University City. This area boasts an expanding business community - 75,000 employees, 11 million square feet of office space and 23 fortune 500 companies with regional offices. About two years ago, the LYNX blue line extension was completed, and now connects the area with light rail public transit. To support this growing business district, University City Partners promotes the area as a center for employment, living, education, commerce, and entertainment. Joining us today is Darlene Heater, Executive Director of University City Partners. Darlene, welcome to the program.
Good morning, thanks for having me on the program. I'm looking forward to our talk today.
First, for listeners who may not be familiar, what encompasses the university city business area?
So the University City business area is the core of university city. The boundaries are Mallard Creek Road to Mallard Creek Church Road includes both the hospital and the campus. The business core goes down as far as University City Boulevard and then picks up Neal Road on the west side and included in the business core are three main business centers - the university research, park innovation park, and university executive park, and we have an emerging business center that is starting to take shape at the JW clay transit station.
Why is University City the right fit for fortune 500 companies located in the area?
You know when we talk with people who are growing their business here or with companies that are interested in locating in University City, the number one reason that they choose University City is accessibility - for location - and talent, talent, talent you know our proximity to the University and that talent generator that is the university the access to research and academia - those are huge selling points for us in university city. Our accessibility, we have remarkable accessibility in the sub market on both by highway so 485, 85, we're about eight miles from 77, transit - we have a significant investment in transit infrastructure both through bus lines as well as the new blue line extension that comes right through the heart of University City and then we have some major arterials that also create easy commute. University City sub market has the lowest commute time of any sub market in this region so you know it's we have a trifecta we have the benefit of having an existing business here and the University which creates immediate access to a talent pool we have remarkable accessibility through transportation and mobility infrastructure and then we just we have a really appealing and value proposition in university city where you can come and get a Class A office space not have to pay for structured parking we have very attractive lease rates in University City and it is just it's beautiful people who choose University City choose not to be in an urban context majorly. Most of our business Center employment is an Innovation Park andthe university research park this Center right now employs about 85,000 people or did before COVID that makes us the second largest employment center in Charlotte.
What attracts workers and families to University City?
Easy livability - so we have a great offering of housing here if you want to rent an apartment if you want to rent a townhome if you want to purchase a starter home all the way up through executive living so great housing product offering at reasonable rates it's very livable to be in University City you can do everything you need in University City we have great access to grocery stores we have great access to entertainment and recreation we have great access to all of the retail services that support livability doctors offices pharmacies daycare - all of those offering create a very liveable University City. You mentioned the LYNX Blue Line extension what impact has the LYNX Blue Line extension had on University City area businesses? I'll tell you I've been working at University City partners as the executive director for almost 7 years so I was here before light rail was constructed and I will tell you that this submarket was a little bit I wouldn't go so far as to say it was sleepy but we were not seeing significant business growth. We had a few announcements when I first came in, but once the rail line started construction and people - especially businesses - realized that this was going to happen the floodgates opened and I would say within the last two years we have just seen remarkable investment and interest in University City. You know there are a lot of contributors to this perfect storm but we we know that the Blue Line extension catalyzed tha. The Blue Line extension to University City all of the media attention that goes with that, plus all of the investment that the city, the county, in the state are making in University City to connect light rail to our institutions, to our businesses, and to our residential areas. Without a doubt the Blue Line has catalyzed significant investment for us.
When we come back to Charlotte Business Buzz more on regional innovation in how COVID-19 is impacted the University City area.
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Welcome Back to Charlotte Business Buzz.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact businesses across the Charlotte region. How has University City fared?
Like the rest of Charlotte and the rest of the nation, we've seen a pretty dramatic change in the way we live, work, play, and learn University City is not different from other places - we've seen our university go to, and our k12 system go to more online learning, we see a whole lot less traffic and cars on our streets because we have a significant population that is working from home, we are seeing you know tremendous change in people's recreation habits - this stay at home order has certainly created hardship for a lot of our retail businesses and business support services that rely on that customer traffic to fuel their business, and so we've been working really closely with some of our communication partners to kind of pivot and figure out how do we better support those businesses who rely on foot traffic and now don't have that foot traffic. You know we're seeing a lot of folks who are delaying medical care because they are they're not wanting to go into to the hospitals or into urgent cares the you know we see we see our hospitals and our urgent cares pivoting as well you know they the hospital cleared out beds they were taking no more major surgeries or care cases so that they could make sure that we had capacity for COVID patients and COVID related medical cases so I would say they're like most of Charlotte we're seeing the same type of impact both in our business environment as well as in our residential environment - the way we live our lives every day - we've had to learn how to a new way to live, work, play, and learn.
I've noticed many businesses are responding with innovative approaches to the challenges they face what are some of the innovations you're seeing in University City?
So we're starting to see - with our retail businesses especially- they've had to think quick on their feet and they're realizing now the potential and even I think a new business line for curbside service and how do we deliver curbside service that creates some type of experience for their users. I work in partnership with a nonprofit organization called Envision Charlotte. Envision Charlotte has been working with the city to figure out how we - through circular economy innovation - how do we as a city pivot and one of the programs that we're working on it envision Charlotte is collecting all of the plastic containers that are now being used because of all of this curbside service and we are instituting in downtown and in University City places for people to recycle those plastic containers. Envision Charlotte was gifted a piece of machinery that will take that those plastic containers melt them down into filament and that filament is used to create PPE for our medical services so they're using 3D printers and the filament that we're melting down from all of these takeout containers and now we're making PPE for our frontline workers we're also seeing organizations like the UCity family the pivoting and figuring out new collaborative ways to deliver services to those most in need in our communities. We have seen a really strong surge in volunteerism and folks who want to figure out how do we help - not just our medical community and those who are serving frontline - but the folks who because of COVID don't have access to the same resources. So we're seeing a lot of innovation through our partner organizations in the UCity family zone and we created a collaborative environment we were able tap into some of our faith leaders and we were serving between 7,000 and 8,000 meals a week to senior citizens and to the homeless who are living in our hotels who don't have kitchen. We were taking food and delivering it from CMS schools into neighborhoods where there are barriers to access - they don't have transportation, they're afraid to go out, they may be they may have disability, so we saw a lot of innovation in service delivery and that way and then I would say the third thing and this has started before COVID but has really started to ramp up is innovation around transportation - University City is ripe for testing some of these new technologies and new innovations around transportation. One of the big priorities that we've been working on is we are a very quickly growing sub market how do we make sure our transportation infrastructure maintains viability and so we're working on with CATS and with some of our private industries on last mile connections from the light rail into our business centers and because we have such a concentration of business and light rail here and a university and a hospital that just has remarkable ridership, this opportunity to test innovations around transportation is very ripe for us.
You mentioned the Hospital. Atrium Health has an acute care hospital in the area, with the second busiest Emergency Department in Mecklenburg County. What benefits does the hospital bring to businesses and residents?
The whole aspect of livability and having a hospital literally in your front yard certainly is a remarkable asset for us for livability. What a lot of folks don't realize is this Atrium Hospital at University City has the only A rating for safety in the region. This hospital is so well-run it has extremely extremely high ratings for creating safe environment for patients, and I think that that confidence that our community has with Atrium Hospital and with the medical workers who are serving our community can't be underrated. This hospital - you mentioned that it is that as the busiest ER in the region - it is also one of the most profitable hospitals in the system. So we we look at our hospital we think about how fortunate we are to have an Atrium Hospital facility in University City but one that is extremely safe, one that is incredibly well-run, and one that has really stepped up as a community partner and look for innovative ways to serve our community. In fact, for the past I think this is our third year Atrium University City Hospital has run a kids eat free program out of their cafeteria, and last year I think they serve six or seven thousand kids and taught them how to eat more healthy, they taught them about portion sizes, they taught them about nutrition and wellness, and the importance of being active and this year they're opening up that service to seven days a week - and they're doing it in partnership with the university. So this- I just I can't overstate what an incredible asset the hospital is to University City they have stepped up as a community partner they stepped up as a workplace creating safe environments both for their workers and their and our residents who live in University City and they stepped up as a care provider. It's just absolutely amazing the work that they do in our community.
At the center of University City is UNC Charlotte. What advantages does this create for the area?
Well, every year you welcome back part of our population that that come to University City - we're always so excited to see them come back because they bring such a burdent energy to University City. You're a major employer - you all have 4,000 faculty staff and workers that all come to University City for employment. The access to academia and research cannot be undervalued that a lot of our businesses that are in the university research park tap into that we have a lot of research intense businesses in University City and certainly proximity to the University is a big driver for that. The university is a tremendous partner with us - they are the backbone of the UCity Family Zone which is deploying faculty staff and student resources into our communities where we where we have greatest needs the university has added investment- you know the investment that through even just through this chancellor of over I think 1.5 billion dollars through buildings and street infrastructure has had an incredible impact on the aesthetic and the the business vibe in University City and we are so fortunate to have UNC Charlotte as an anchor institution in our community.
Construction of the Marriott hotel and conference center on the campus of UNC Charlotte is well underway. How do you expect this new infrastructure to contribute to the University City submarket?
So we have a new asset that we can recruit conferences and you know from the University perspective a lot of those conferences are going to be academia centric but it also adds an asset to the City of Charlotte where now we have a secondary Convention Center or meeting space that we can utilize to recruit more conventions and more shows and more meetings to to the City of Charlotte and the University City, so benefits the City of Charlotte but bringing all of those meeting attendees University City is going to support our retail and our small service businesses. We're very excited about it I know this was a really big lift for the University, it has taken years to get off the ground, and we are absolutely thrilled that they were able to figure out how to get this done and add this asset both to the campus and to University City.
How does University City in Charlotte compare to other university-centric submarkets in other cities?
So our university is a young university. When we go to conferences and we talk with our peer organizations and peer universities, one of the things we realize is just how young our university is - you know 60 years old a lot of these other institutions have been around for centuries, but you know I think that this university is learning very quickly how to engage in this community, how to evolve into a town and gown environment. We are just now within the last probably five to eight years maybe five to ten years the university is building out towards its edges so now it doesn't feel like it is on an island, and creating ways for the community to enjoy that university is a big priority for us - it's a priority for the university, it's a priority for University City partners. We're also looking for opportunities and ideas for pulling the university brand off of campus and melding it more into our university environment, so you'll see more signs and banners promoting UNC Charlotte in our community spaces. We are going to start doing more events that start to cross-pollinate we started Charlotte Kids Fest three years ago and that last year that brought about 7,000 members from our community onto campus and it has been just a remarkable opportunity to showcase the university to family and to young children and make them realize the asset that we have here in university city with having UNC Charlotte as an anchor.
Looking toward the future of University City, there were several plans for expansion prepared late last year, and even up to the beginning of March. Can you share a couple of these projects with us and their status?
Sure. We're excited to hear we just that most of our projects are still moving forward I would say as a matter of fact all of them except for one we have one project that said we're going to hit the pause button. It was a multi-family residential project and we have plenty of those in the pipeline so not real concerning to us but we do believe that Charlotte is going to rebound more quickly we're hearing that from a lot of our economic development experts that yes Charlotte was well-positioned going into the pandemic and we should be a little more resilient coming out of pandemic and into more normal economy. The projects that that were announced prior to the pandemic as I said are still moving forward some of them have been delayed, they just slowed down a little bit because government operations slowed down. So their ability to get through permitting, their ability to get through rezoning processes, all of that is taking longer - but by and large all of the projects that were in the pipeline are still in the pipeline and we're excited about that. We knew when rail was announced for University City and the Blue Line Extension began construction that we were poised for growth we have been very diligent with monitoring that growth and influencing what gets built in University City. We just completed a University City vision document that is our compass for making these decisions. We're excited to be able to share those with the community once we start to edge out of pandemic and we cannot be more enthusiastic for the growth and development that we're seeing because we believe that it's growing in the right way and in the best ways.
Recent studies are showing that business owners remain optimistic. What are you most optimistic about in University City?
I’m most optimistic about this community. When I took this job to become the executive director of University City partners, I had a lot of experience coming from Center City Partners in building a city that you know that is a lot of block and tackle but what I said I was most interested in is as we build this city, I want to build community. And I have seen this community come together in so many wonderful ways. You know one of the things we pride ourself on in University City is our diversity and being at a very inclusive community and being a welcoming community and we're continuing to build on that brand asset that is very specific and very unique to University City and I'm so excited to think about all of the ways that our community can grow to be more inclusive and to be more welcoming and to really support each other both in business as well as through the way we live, work, play, and learn.
Thanks so much for your time today, Darlene.
It's been my great pleasure, thank you for having me.
Darlene Heater is Executive Director of University City Partners. To learn more about University City Partners and their work, visit university city partners dot org. For more on the Charlotte Business Buzz podcast, visit belk college dot uncc dot edu slash buzz, B-U-Z-Z.
Next time … We talk with Bryan Delaney, UNC Charlotte Foundation Board Member, and Belk College alum about entrepreneurship in Charlotte.
Until then, this is Charlotte Business Buzz ... Connecting Charlotte business through one-on-one interviews with UNC Charlotte faculty, staff, alumni and industry partners… and is presented by the Belk College of Business, the Office of Industry and Government Partnerships and produced in association with University Communications. Learn more or listen to previous episodes at belkcollege.uncc.edu/buzz B-U-Z-Z