off to the races for horse farms
Union County, the fastest
growing place in the Carolinas, happily accepts its label as Charlotte's
By Laura Williams-Tracy
County is unabashed about calling itself Charlotte’s best neighborhood. While
many places shun the term bedroom community, Union has embraced the thousands of
new residents crossing the Mecklenburg County line to find higher home values, a
smaller and well-respected school system and lower taxes.
The influx has made Union the fastest growing county in North Carolina (and
South Carolina, for that matter) and the 24th fastest in the nation. Union’s
population grew by 47 percent from 1990 to 2000, and it shows no sign of
slowing. By 2019 it’s expected to reach a population of 170,000.
The growth is perhaps most visible in the many large, luxurious houses on the
county’s western side, where Charlotte executives and their families have
discovered a welcoming community of acre-sized lots and horse farms. Union now
has the state’s second-highest median income, second only to Wake County.
A lab technician at Greiner
Bio-One manufactures vials to collect blood
The 500-acre Monroe
Corporate Center is Union County's largest industrial site
“It’s unbelievable the number of people I see that I don’t know,” says
retired state senator Aaron Plyler, 78, who grew up north of the county seat of
Monroe and represented the county in the N.C. General Assembly for 28 years.
“I remember when the western part of the county wouldn’t grow cotton. Now
they are growing houses instead of row crops.”
“We worry about the western part of our county sinking because of the
thousands of people moving there from Mecklenburg County,” jokes Wingate
University President Dr. Jerry McGee, whose 1,600-student campus is 30 minutes
east of the county’s phenomenal residential growth.
But breaking records isn’t new to Union County, and it certainly isn’t
entirely defined by its big-city neighbor. Located in the southwest corner of
the Piedmont resting on the South Carolina line, Union County also boasts a
diverse industrial base.
Its second largest employer, Allvac, a maker of specialty metals for the
aerospace and medical industries among others, purchases more electrical energy
than any other entity in the Carolinas.
McGee Masonry Group, the county’s third largest non-governmental employer, is
the largest masonry contractor in the United States, and the founders’ nephew,
Travis McGee, holds a place in Guinness Book of World Record’s as the fastest
brick layer, laying 1,494 brick in Dallas in 1996 in just one hour.
On Union’s more rural eastern side, Edwards Wood Products is among the largest
pallet makers in the country, turning out some 85,000 wooden shipping pallets
When looked at as a whole, many say there are really three Union Counties. The
western portion is made up of communities such as Weddington, Waxhaw and Marvin
that attribute their recent growth to spillover from South Charlotte’s luxury
homes. Monroe, the county seat in the geographical center of the county, is the
center of government and industry. And eastern Union County, including the towns
of Marshville and, farther north, Unionville, retains its largely rural appeal
and is home to the county’s still thriving agricultural base.
Together, the 14 incorporated towns of Union County offer a combination of
country charm and urban convenience promising something for just about everyone.
Monroe as Movie Backdrop
Monroe is Union’s largest town with 26,456 residents, and it is the center of
government and industry. The centerpiece of town is the 1886 Victorian
Italianate county courthouse that has served as the backdrop for several movies,
including The Color Purple. A new judicial building is one of several major
construction projects planned or under way in downtown Monroe, which is
experiencing a revival with significant public investments in new sidewalks, a
new 200-foot greenway and a new performing arts center.
The city named for James Monroe,
the seventh president, was founded in 1844, when the cotton industry and
railroad’s arrival spurred commerce. Charlotte-based Belk department store
started in Monroe in 1888 when William Henry Belk opened The New York Racket at
Main and Morgan streets.
Today Monroe has retained its quaint downtown, which is surrounded by historic,
bungalow style homes with classic tree-lined streets.
City leaders will break ground next spring on a new performing arts center,
which is expected to attract other arts offerings and provide additional meeting
space in the community. The $5 million facility will include a 500-seat
auditorium, banquet facilities to seat 200 and gallery space. The center will be
paid for with a new 5 percent hotel occupancy tax, which started in October 2003
and is intended to fund tourism-related activities.
Downtown’s new performing arts center is part of an overall revitalization of
Monroe’s central business district that’s been happening over the past few
years with both business and the city council investing in the streetscape.
“It’s been on a positive upswing and this is a way to bring more people into
downtown,” says Monroe City Manager Doug Spell, who notes that the city is
planning to hire a tourism specialist who will market the city and its cultural
The city has focused its efforts in recent years on providing new amenities for
residents, including the amazing success story of the Monroe Aquatic &
Fitness Center. When the city failed to garner the interest of the national YMCA
organization in opening a branch in Monroe, the city undertook the effort,
hoping to get 2,000 members to make the project financially viable.
The facility opened in 1999 and this year membership has hovered near 11,000
members. To meet demand, the center has undergone four expansions in its short
five-year history, including a new water park opening last summer. “It has
been very successful for us,” says Spell.
Indian Trail is Union county’s second largest city with 12,046 residents. It
grew by an amazing 513 percent over the past decade, due for the most part by
its location along U.S. 74 at the Mecklenburg County line. The city gets its
name from its location on what was the trading route between Virginia and the
Waxhaw’s Indian settlement.
Next to Indian Trail is Stallings, which touches Mecklenburg County and is the
gateway to Union County. Stallings has a focused effort to build its city
services with plans to build a town center and a new police department that
started in 2003.
Lake Park is a neighborhood and
town on U.S. 74 that began in 1990 as a mixed use subdivision and incorporated
four years later.
The eastern Union communities of Marvin, Waxhaw and Weddington have become the
central place for upscale housing. Waxhaw holds abundant remnants of Union’s
history. The town took its name from the Indian tribe that dates back to the
1700s and is home to the Andrew Jackson memorial, which celebrates the life of
the seventh president who was born nearby. Today’s Waxhaw is also known as an
antiques shopper’s haven.
Weddington lies right in the path of Charlotte’s growth and has become a
wealthy community that remains largely residential. Weddington has the highest
per-household disposable income in the Carolinas at $67,170. Its centerpiece is
the glistening new The Club at Longview, a private, gated community featuring a
Jack Nicklaus signature golf course that already is playing to rave reviews.
The communities of Fairview in northern Union County, Hemby Bridge, Marshville,
Mineral Springs, Wesley Chapel, Unionville and Fairview boast beautiful horse
farms and single-family homes. Unionville is the county’s largest town
geographically; it encompasses 15,000 acres north of Monroe along U.S. 601. The
town’s annual November barbecue is one of the state’s largest fundraising
events to benefit an elementary school.
Wingate, located in more rural eastern Union, is home to Wingate University, a
private liberal arts college.
Industries Come Calling
As with housing, Union’s mix of rural and urban amenities has been the right
combination for industry. The region offers abundant land, labor and support as
well as quick access to Charlotte’s offerings.
“It really is a tremendous asset to be close to UNC Charlotte, I-77 and I-85
and Charlotte-Douglas International Airport,” says Jim Carpenter, president of
the Union County Chamber of Commerce. “Our relationship and growth and
spillover from Charlotte have created a community that has really grown up.”
Union County has a local labor force of more than 74,000; the greatest portion
of jobs — 28.6 percent — is in manufacturing.
Monroe Corporate Center holds the county’s largest concentration of industry.
The 500-acre business park, begun in 1996 by the city of Monroe, has attracted
such companies as Greiner Bio-One, makers of vials to collect blood; Scott
Health & Safety, makers of the finest breathing apparatus for fire fighters
on the market; Coca-Cola Bottling Co., American Wick Drain; Goulston
Technologies, which makes a lubricant for the textile industry; and Coresco, a
marketing promotions company that is the ninth-largest female owned business in
the Charlotte region.
A significant economic coup for the county of late was Goodrich Corp.’s
decision to place its repair, remanufacturing and customer service division on
the industrial park’s campus and invest $2 to upgrade the building. Hiring
started this spring with 150 employees.
“They have invested more and hired more than they expected,” says Chris
Plate, executive director of Monroe Economic Development Corp.
The county’s second largest, non-governmental employer is Allvac, which makes
nickel-based alloys and employs some 1,120 people. The company began as Allvac
Metals Co. in 1957 in Monroe and is today a world leader in the production of
high performance metals with seven manufacturing plants in the United States and
Europe. Allvac, which recently completed an $11 million expansion to its Monroe
headquarters plant, makes high performance metallic materials for the aerospace,
jet aircraft, nuclear power, automotive and medical device industries.
Howard Freese, an executive with Allvac, says the company has found in Union
County a workforce dedicated to the company’s mission, reliable and reasonably
priced electricity, which it uses in great quantities to melt titanium and other
metals, and a favorable business culture. “We are a collection of talented,
hardworking, loyal North Carolina folks, men and women, who together think we
can do just about anything,” says Freese. “We are proud to work on behalf of
our customers who need reliable metallic products.”
Local leaders say the company is invaluable when it comes to giving back to the
community. Allvac traditionally is a leading giver to United Way and other
community improvement efforts. “Bank of America is to Charlotte as Allvac is
to Union County,” says the chamber’s Carpenter.
“A lot of people depend on them and the good salaries they pay,” adds Plyler.
“Most anything that takes place in Union County, they have a part in it.”
Though no longer the primary industry in Union County, agriculture remains a
significant part of the economy, contributing more than $320 million to the
local economy each year. Agribusiness here encompasses poultry, hogs, cattle,
beef, eggs, soybeans, grains and cotton. Tyson Foods, which processes chicken,
is the county’s largest non-governmental employer, with 1,200 workers.
Tyson Foods Inc. announced in May that it would spend $13 million to standardize
package sizes at its Monroe poultry processing plant. The upgrade helped to
insulate jobs at the 1,300-employee plant. Just five years ago the company spent
$16 million to expand the plant. “The continued investment by Tyson show the
productivity of this complex,” says Plate.
McGee Brothers is the county’s third largest employer with 985 people working
for the brick masonry company here and another 300 at its other locations in the
Brothers Sam, Don and Mike McGee and brother-in-law Cletus Huntley formed the
company 34 years ago when they saw an opportunity to build the brick masonry
profession into more than a small laborer’s profession. “Generally the best
qualified brick masons go into business for themselves,” says partner Sam
McGee Masonry Group entices the best brick layers with incentive-based pay based
on productivity; the company handles the major investments of forklifts,
insurance and accounting. Today, McGee is a turnkey brick masonry contractor
that enhances its service as a distributor for brick, sand and mortar.
Another longtime Union business is Edwards Wood Products in Marshville. Started
in 1969 by Carroll Edwards, the company now employs 225 people at its main plant
in the eastern part of the county as well as another 175 in Laurinburg and
Edwards builds some 85,000 shipping pallets a week for the chemical, food and
paper industries, as well as providing timber to the furniture, flooring and
millwork industries, says company President Jeff Edwards. “Our business is
changing a lot,” says Edwards. “We used to ship timber to Lexington to the
furniture makers and now we are shipping around the world.”
When marketing itself to new business and industry, Union County touts its
location and quality of life. The area also has expansive available land.
Although it’s not located on an interstate, the county is easily accessible
via N.C. 74 and N.C. 601 and within a few minutes of Charlotte’s international
airport. Locally, plans are to enlarge the runway at Monroe Regional Airport to
7,000 feet will accommodate 40-passenger regional jet traffic. Long-term, there
is talk of a tower and a larger terminal that would position Monroe Regional as
a primary reliever for Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. The county also
offers all levels of housing from executive to starter homes. Land prices are
taxes are lower than some of Union’s neighbors. “Your overall cost of doing
business in Monroe and Union County is lower,” says Plate.
With so much residential growth, Union’s leaders are pushing hard to attract
new industry to share in the tax burden of paying for new schools, roads and
Adding more punch to the region’s industry recruiting power is the Union
County Partnership for Progress, a new nonprofit which recently replaced the
Union County Economic Development Commission, which was a department of county
government. The Partnership for Progress is being headed up by Maurice Ewing,
who came to Union from neighboring Cabarrus County, where he recruited industry
for 10 years. “There is a healthy sense of urgency in Union County about
what’s going on now,” says Ewing.
Predictably, retail has been among the fastest growing business sectors here as
stores proliferate to serve the hundreds of new neighborhoods. Retail sales grew
from $644 million in 1994 to $1.37 billion in 2001.
Still, because of the growing number of homes and high incomes, studies have
shown that Union County could support much more retail development. Such
development would keep shoppers from going into Mecklenburg County to spend
their paychecks, depriving Union of needed tax revenue.
In recent months, five shopping centers totaling about 100,000 square feet have
been permitted in Waxhaw. Wesley Chapel is scheduled to get a 75,000-square-foot
neighborhood center. And in Monroe, a new development is expected to bring a
level of retail the county has not previously known.
Though they live near Mecklenburg County’s esteemed research hospitals, Union
County residents don’t have to travel for top quality healthcare.
Union Regional Medical Center in Monroe (left) is a 225-bed facility with
acute and long-term care services. It is part of the Carolinas Health Care
System, which operates the region’s largest hospital, Carolinas Medical Center
Union Regional recently completed a $47 million, 78,000-square-foot expansion
that added a two-story outpatient diagnostic and treatment center, a cancer
treatment center with radiation therapy services and MRI and CAT scan services
newer than any in the region.
The hospital has seven operating suites where physicians perform an average of
550 procedures each month. It’s emergency room serves more than 3,000 patients
The growth and reputation of Union as a place for an exemplary quality of life
and first-rate healthcare has prompted a group of local investors to plan a $65
million medical complex adjacent to the hospital that will be Monroe’s biggest
economic development project ever.
Developers have plans for Metro Medical Park, a 430,000-square-foot mixed-use
center to be built on 50 acres across from Union Regional. Metro Medical Park is
expected to support up to 800 jobs, and will include an assisted living center,
medical offices, retail space and a hotel.
The region’s unparalleled growth has prompted the building of many new public
schools to accommodate more than 1,000 new students gained each year. Today,
Union County Public Schools is also the fastest growing school system in the
region, and the second fastest in the state. It now has 25,000 students and 34
schools, many of them brand new.
Over the past six years voters have overwhelmingly passed four bond referendums
totaling $277 million for new school construction with an average approval rate
of 69 percent. The largest of those bonds is a $100 million issue approved by
voters in May 2004 that will build four new elementary schools, a new middle and
a new high school, mostly in the high-growth areas of the county.
The county also offers six private schools and one charter school. Southern
Piedmont Community College, with campuses in Union and Anson counties, serves
more than 4,000 students, offering associate degree and certificate programs and
The Monroe campus, which is adjacent to Monroe Regional Airport and Monroe
Corporate Park, offers high tech programs such as metallurgical science
technology, mechanical engineering technology and a concentration of healthcare
Wingate University, ranked by US News
& World Report as one of the nation’s best small colleges, has 1,400
students on a 390-acre campus whose gates open to U.S. 74. Wingate was founded
by Baptists in 1896 as an independent institution and attracts students from
more than 30 states and several foreign countries.
Wingate offers in excess of 40 undergraduate majors as well as master’s in
education and business. Wingate also has a satellite campus for its MBA program
in Mecklenburg County.
In 2003 Wingate became only the third university in the state to offer a
pharmacy degree program, hoping to address a critical shortage of pharmacists in
the region. Response to the program has been substantial not only from students
— 700 applied for just 60 spots — but from pharmacists and drug stores
across the region who reached out with support and funding.
“We’ve received a $10,000 check in the mail with a note thanking us for
starting the program,” says McGee, the Wingate president. “It has really
broadened our base of support.”
The university has invested $10 million in the program in facilities and
faculty. Most of Wingate’s pharmacy students already have a four-year degree
and will spend another four years earning a PharmD degree. The program is on
track to receive full accreditation when it graduates its first class in 2007.
Proud of its Heritage
With its collection of history, horses and outdoor happenings, there’s never a
dull weekend in Union County for residents and visitors.
The western part of the county near Waxhaw offers several educational trips for
families interested in learning about the region’s heritage as well as some
unexpected venues to learn about places far away. Andrew Jackson, the sixth
president, was born near hear. The Museum of the Waxhaws commemorates
Jackson’s life and untold other historical events from 1650, when the native
tribe lived here, until 1900.
Also in Waxhaw is JAARS — the technical service arm of Wycliffe Bible
Translators, a group that translates the New Testament into several hundred
The complex includes two museums; the Mexico-Cardenas Museum honors Lazaro
Cardenas, who president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940; and the Museum of the
Alphabet, which explores the development of inscribed languages. The Alphabet
Museum traces the history of alphabets and the written language. Of the
world’s 6,000 languages, half still do not have a written form.
If you’re looking for history closer to North Carolina, the Jesse Helms Center
in Wingate highlights the life of retired Sen. Jesse Helms, a native of Monroe.
The center is across from Wingate University, where Helms graduated in 1939, and
it displays exhibits and memorabilia.
The center sponsors a lecture
series that in recent years has brought former British Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher and the Dalai Lama to speak.
If the weather is right for outdoor recreation the county-owned Cane Creek Park
is a natural draw. The 1,050-acre park draws visitors daily to its 350-acre
trophy bass lake, a beach for swimming, boats for rent, miniature golf,
campsites and rental cabins and miles of trails for mountain bikers
On the last Saturday each April, horse enthusiasts and those with an eye on
their social calendar converge in Mineral Springs for the annual Queen’s Cup
steeplechase. The day’s events include horse races, parties and a parade of
ladies’ fine hats. The event regularly attracts more than 20,000 people with
all profits going to charity.
While Union County’s recent story has been about growth and change, remnants
of Union County haven’t changed. The Hilltop Restaurant, built by Aaron Plyler
in 1963 and sold several years ago, remains the place to go if you want to keep
abreast of local politics.
Union County is rapidly changing with more and more of the amenities of a bigger
community right at its fingertips. Yet the things that have always made the
community feel like home remain.
“Being next to Charlotte is a great thing,” says Wingate University
president McGee. “We just have to figure out how to take advantage of it.”
Off to the Races for Horse Farms
County makes headlines for its rapid growth in residences, but a scenic tour
along N.C. 16 through western Union County reveals that horse barns are a close
second to new neighborhoods.
For eight years running, the town of Mineral Springs and a farm called
Brooklandwood has been home to the Queen’s Cup Steeplechase, one of 35
sanctioned races by the National Steeplechase Association. The premier
equestrian event in the region also is a place where socialites show off their
fanciful tailgating spreads and even more ambitious costumed hats.
According to a 1996 survey by the N.C. Department of Agriculture, Union County
ranks second in the state behind Guilford County in the number of horses, with
the head count at 4,600. But the fact that urban Mecklenburg County ranks third
causes some in the county to speculate that because horses were tracked by
ownership rather than where they reside, the large number of Mecklenburg owners
who board their horses over the county line may mean the actual number in Union
“Union is on the records in Raleigh with being the No. 2 county in horse
population,” says Grady McAuley, a retired Amoco Oil Co. executive who raises
Arabian horses on his Waxhaw farm. “We’re half kidding and half serious that
we think we are No. 1.”
For sure the equestrian industry — business and pleasure — is an economic
engine in Union County. Jerry Simpson, director of the North Carolina
Cooperative Extension Service in Union County, estimates that it’s worth $20
million in the county, including feed, hay business, farriers, boarding,
veterinarians, and trailers and tackle. Further, the North Carolina Horse
Council estimates that the equine industry statewide is valued at more than $500
Horse enthusiasts would like to see a horse complex built that could seat 1,000
for weekend shows that would draw equestrian events from around the Southeast.
The state has three main horse showing facilities in Raleigh, Williamston and
Fletcher. Union advocates believe their region already has the critical mass to
“There are a lot of people who hitch their trailers and leave this county
every weekend to got to Augusta and other places to show their horses,” says
Simpson. “They could just as easily do that here.” — Laura