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It's off to the races for horse farms

Greener Pastures

Union County, the fastest 
growing place in the Carolinas, happily accepts its label as Charlotte's best neighborhood

By Laura Williams-Tracy

Union 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 each week.

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 amenities.

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 Carolinas.

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.

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 Liberty.

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 infrastructure.   

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.

Healthcare Expands

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 in Charlotte.

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 a month.

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 on-site training.

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 courses.

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 languages.

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.”

It's Off to the Races for Horse Farms
Union 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 is higher.

“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 million annually.

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 support another.

“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 Williams-Tracy

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Last Modified: September 10, 2004
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