Thirty years ago, Lake Norman – 25 miles to the north of Charlotte – was primarily a weekend retreat, its shores dotted with tin-roofed boathouses, mobile homes and fishing cabins.
That began to change, however, with the completion of Interstate 77 in 1976. Suddenly it was possible to live like you were on vacation all year round only a quick 20-minute drive from work, shopping and entertainment in the big city.
Lake Norman is a “working” lake, created by Duke Energy for the generation of hydroelectric power. It covers 520 miles of shoreline in four counties – Mecklenburg, Iredell, Lincoln and Catawba. At nearly 34 miles long and eight miles across at its widest point, it is larger than the Sea of Galilee and often referred to as “The Inland Sea.”
As any developer will tell you, retail follows rooftops and the Lake Norman area is no exception. Lake shoppers can now browse unique boutiques, quaint village shops, upscale specialty stores or national chains. In the town centers, entrepreneurs are converting homes, warehouses, old mills and train depots into craft, consignment, antiques and clothing shops. Restaurants, which used to look at Lake Norman as a secondary location, are now opening here first, then branching out to Uptown and other parts of Charlotte.
Unless you’re on a boat or have access to private land, 1,600-acre Lake Norman State Park in Troutman is the only place public swimming is allowed from Lake Norman shores. The park features a new beach, boat ramps, picnic shelters, campsites and mountain biking and hiking trails.
When Charlotteans refer to the Lake Norman area, they usually mean the area north of the Harris Boulevard/I-77 interchange, which includes Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson in Mecklenburg County. In less than 20 years, the three towns have been transformed from sleepy rural hamlets into thriving towns with all the amenities of city life, from business parks to bistros, housing to health care.
Now Lake Norman’s eastern shore towns grapple with the same issues that drove their residents here in the first place.
In 1990, 3,000 people called Huntersville home. But proximity between the Queen City and the lake, lower home prices, less traffic and quiet communities has catapulted Huntersville’s population to about 40,000 today.
Birkdale Village on Sam Furr Road in Huntersville includes apartments and offices above boutiques, restaurants and national retailers such as Williams-Sonoma, Gap, Talbot’s and Ann Taylor Loft. Live bands play on warm-weather weekend evenings, and parents from around the lake bring children to splash and play in the village square fountain. The Nantucket-style shopping center’s quaint Main Street is lined with locally owned stores, a pizza parlor, ice cream shop, wine room, a 16-screen stadium-seating movie theater, bookstores and clothing shops.
Although much of the retail and residential areas in Huntersville are new, the town also has numerous historic sites within a five-mile drive of Beatties Ford Road. Hopewell Presbyterian Church, for instance, dates to the 1740s and features 200-year-old stone walls around its cemetery. The Hugh Torance House and Store, started in the 1770s, is the oldest surviving store site in North Carolina. The two-room log cabin also sat on a cotton plantation and was used as a school for young ladies, slave quarters and an overseer’s house.
Each April, the Loch Norman Highland Games celebrate the area’s Scots-Irish heritage with athletic competitions, bagpipe music, dancing, tartan parades and historical demonstrations.
Another pocket of preserved Huntersville is Latta Plantation Nature Preserve, the county’s largest green space with hiking trails, picnic shelters, a nature center, an equestrian center, boating and fishing on Mountain Island Lake and the Carolina Raptor Center, which rehabilitates and releases injured birds of prey.
Huntersville also has a new family fitness center and outdoor fun park where kids can slide through tubes, spray water cannons and climb sprinkler-filled jungle gyms set inside a pool.
Cornelius also has felt Lake Norman’s growth spurt, climbing from 2,500 residents in 1990 to about 19,000 today. In the past decade, large, upscale developments such as The Peninsula arrived, adding hundreds of homes to the area.
Services and shops followed, and Cornelius embraced the population boom by welcoming commercial development. Upscale shopping centers line West Catawba Avenue off Exit 28. Shoppers flock to Jetton Village, Shops on the Green, SouthLake Shopping Center and strip after strip of boutiques and eateries on West Catawba Avenue. Now the shops have overflowed to East Catawba, where old bungalows and stately brick homes have been converted into funky, fun downtown boutiques.
Lake Norman residents already enjoy two top-notch county parks in Cornelius – the 105-acre Jetton Park with lake access, tennis, bike rentals, walking trails, picnic shelters, playground and a beach; and Ramsey Creek Park, a 43-acre waterfront park with two large picnic shelters, a playground, volleyball courts, picnic facilities, fishing and boat slips.
Of the three North Meck towns, Davidson has been most resistant to Lake Norman growth. While Huntersville and Cornelius experienced massive growth in the 1990s, Davidson grew by just over 3,000 residents. Today the small college town has about 8,100 residents.
The town is named for Gen. William Lee Davidson, a local Revolutionary War hero who died in the battle of Cowans Ford in 1781 and the namesake of Davidson College, the town’s small liberal arts school founded in 1837 by Presbyterians.
Still a college town that locals often call a village, Davidson embraces a Main Street, know-your-neighbors way of life. Many folks have lived here for decades, while others have moved here for the small-town atmosphere, tranquility and easygoing pace.
Across the Iredell County line above Davidson, Mooresville continues Lake Norman’s east-side building boom.
Known as Race City USA for its abundance of NASCAR teams and shops, Mooresville’s population doubled in the 1990s. Today the town has about 21,000 residents – a number that continues to grow by more than 1,000 each year.
The biggest change in Mooresville is the completion of home-improvement retailer Lowe’s 400,000-square-foot corporate campus, which houses the company’s headquarters. Economic developers have called the Lowe’s campus the most significant industrial project ever built in southern Iredell County.
Residentially, Crescent Resources continues to develop The Point, a Nantucket-style community at the tip of Brawley School Road with a private golf course designed by Greg Norman, a clubhouse and swimming pool. Several of the cedar shake and stone houses overlooking the lake cost more than $3 million.
By 2012, Mooresville also hopes to have the commuter rail North Meck line running from Uptown Charlotte through Lake Norman towns and the south Iredell corridor.
Lake Norman Regional Medical Center recently moved from its former location in downtown Mooresville into a new 117-bed facility at I-77, Exit 33. The complex, which also includes a physicians’ office building, has been the catalyst for a development boom at the interchange.
Recreation in the Mooresville area includes Queen’s Landing, home of the Catawba Queen and Lady of the Lake, Mississippi paddle wheeler replicas that cruise Lake Norman year-round for lunch, dinner and sightseeing. Queen’s Landing also features a family entertainment center with two 18-hole mini-golf courses, bumper boats, a restaurant and deli/bar.
The Lazy 5 Ranch features more than 750 animals, including giraffes, buffalo, antelope, deer, elk, camels, reindeer, long horn cattle, zebras, llamas, pigs and goats. There’s also a petting zoo, playground and picnic area.
Equally family friendly is Carrigan Farms, a pick-your-own Mooresville farm that grows strawberries, peaches, asparagus, apples, pumpkins, tomatoes, corn and other seasonal vegetables.
NASCAR race shops draw thousands of visitors a year who can see cars being built, trophies, photographs and other memorabilia. Local race shops include those of Gibbs, Penske and Earnhardt. The N.C. Auto Racing Hall of Fame is a museum dedicated to stock car, Indy and drag racing. Visitors see more than 35 cars, including winners driven by Richard Petty, Rusty Wallace and Davey Allison.
Downtown Mooresville will soon be home to its very own luxury condominiums at 100 North Church. The four-story building offers units ranging from $370,000 to $500,000 and includes retail on the ground level.
Art-lovers will enjoy Cotton Ketchie’s watercolors and face jugs by regional potters at Landmark Galleries and the Mooresville Artist Guild’s Depot, a visual arts center located in an 1856 railroad depot. Both are in downtown Mooresville.
Other long-time traditions include D.E. Turner Hardware, a century-old store with items piled to the rafters and salesmen who love to spin yarns, and Mooresville Ice Cream Company, which has sold Deluxe brand ice cream since 1924.