The latest Excelsior Club proposal: Build public-private partnership Council member wants to develop, preserve site
A proposed public-private project would preserve at least part of the Historic Excelsior Club for multi-use development.Charlotte City Council member James Mitchell said he’s pitching ideas for the city to approve an effort to buy the property and work with a developer on upscaling the former night club as an economic engine in Historic West End.
“I’m trying to get this done by the end of the year,” said Mitchell, who grew up in west Charlotte and represented the district on City Council before earning an at-large seat. “I think the longer it waits, it becomes more of a negative conversation for our community and in my mind this current City Council can get this done before they leave office on Dec. 2.”
The Excelsior, which closed in 2016 and has fallen into disrepair, once counted black Charlotte’s elite among its members. The site has been placed on a list of 11 sites “at risk of destruction or irreparable damage” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“For me, I’d say it has to be a true mixed use,” Mitchell said. “It should have, at least for a historic designation… the façade. I think it would be a great opportunity to bring the Historic Excelsior Club inside a mixed use. I’d like to see an African American gallery. We don’t have a place in that corridor for weddings, for community space. I could see this being something for Johnson C. Smith [University] to be an incubator for entrepreneurship, so I’m talking about doing something very transformative. …That’s the kind of creativity I’m looking for.”
Dan Morrill, founding director of the Historic Landmarks Commission, said he wasn’t “well informed” regarding details of Mitchell’s proposal, but advocates saving the building, whose art moderne architecture – a rarity in today’s Charlotte – and importance to the African American community are invaluable.
“I’m a pragmatist at heart,” he said. “I think it’s very important to keep the legacy of the Excelsior Club alive. I think there are real challenges with trying to fully restore the building. I don’t really have any preference as to whether it’s done publicly or privately. I think the main thing is whatever is more effective in keeping the legacy alive.”
Local efforts to save the Excelsior, located in the Washington Heights community, have met with mixed results. The landmarks commission, which initially tried to find a buyer, initiated a moratorium to buy time before a demolition that ended on June 11. County commissioners voted down a proposed deal between Cunningham and the landmarks commission that would give the commission a year to locate a buyer or purchase the property outright.
The Excelsior’s owner, N.C. Rep. Carla Cunningham, told The Post last year refurbishing the building would require at least $400,000. The property was listed for $1.5 million and had a proposed buyer earlier this year, but that deal fell through. “The city is trying to step in,” Mitchell said. “We had a very good meeting with some private folks, and I think for us the issue is trying to get a feel from the county.”
Mitchell said he’s reached out to Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller to gauge interest about partnering on the project. The city and county often join forces on major development programs such as Brooklyn Village in Second Ward and upgrades to Memorial Stadium in Elizabeth.
“I hope to have an answer [this] week and that will determine what bigger role or what role the city will have to play,” Mitchell said. “If the county is not involved, of course that means a bigger share will have to come from us. If the county is involved, it allows us to use some of our resources on what I call the future vision, what could go there that could really transform that area.”
Mitchell said any public-private development has to maintain the history of the Excelsior, which was founded in 1944 as a top-end nightclub and gathering place for African Americans during an era of rigid racial segregation. Neighbors and history advocates worry a private buyer could go in a different direction and tear the building down without intervention.
“It has to have neighborhood buy-in, it has to be a project our grandchildren can talk about and it has to restore the black history in the Excelsior Club,” Mitchell said. “I know the neighborhood is very anxious …I think the neighborhood feels very comfortable that the city is back at the table.”
In addition to pitching the county, Mitchell said he’s talked to potential partners in the development and philanthropic communities, such as the Knight Foundation, Foundation for the Carolinas and business leaders about joining forces.
“I think everybody is like just wanting a deal to get done, [but] I want to say let’s be patient, let’s move toward the right deal so we can all be proud at the end. I see us not rushing to do something to do something, but let’s get the right project, let’s get the right vision and get the finances there.”