Funding strategies transformed Huntersville
by Staff Writer
by Brett Freeman
For a long time, Huntersville didn’t change much – it was a tiny farm town north of Charlotte for most of its history.
Just 20 years ago, most of what is now within the Huntersville town limits was unincorporated and still being farmed. Even as the town began to grow it remained in many ways a small town. Former mayor and council member Kim Phillips recalled recently that when she was first elected in 1993, the entire parks and recreation budget was $10,000 (it’s now more than $2 million). And three-quarters of that $10,000 went unspent.
“All we did was mow and maybe pay HYAA (Huntersville Youth Athletic Association) to put markings down on the athletic fields,” Phillips says.
The town began its rural-to-suburban transformation in 1995, taking out a loan for park construction, and even more so in 1999 with another loan that went toward parks and the construction of the Huntersville Family Fitness and Aquatics Center. But the real game changer for managing and accommodating the town’s rapid growth came in 2003, when Huntersville residents approved a $20 million bond referendum that included $8.5 million for transportation projects, $6 million for parks and $5.5 million for public facilities. For the first time, the town had the ability to undertake large projects. This new ability to think big was reflected in the Huntersville’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP), which was approved along with the town budget in May 2004.
“We’d had a CIP prior to the bond referendum,” town Manager Greg Ferguson said. “But it was just for small projects. For big projects, we really didn’t have a funding source prior to 2003.”
The CIP is essentially a priority list of large, one-time projects the town expects to undertake over the next five years, including funding sources.
The 2004 CIP included several park projects, improvements to intersections, construction of additional downtown parking, and acquisition or construction of additional space for the public works and parks and recreation departments, as well as additional administrative space. It also included two new fire stations and called for more than $9 million in spending in fiscal year 2004-2005 for the widening of N.C. 73 between U.S. 21 and N.C. 115.
The bond money allowed the town to be much more ambitious in its planning. Eight years later, with nearly 90 percent of that money spent or spoken for, it’s easy to see the transformative effect it has had.
The most obvious example is the Huntersville Town Center building. While it was another year before Discovery Place emerged as a potential partner and primary tenant, the 2004 CIP had already identified the need for additional space for several town departments and more downtown parking, both of which were achieved with the new building and parking deck. Beyond that, the town center building is a linchpin in the town’s downtown plan. The bonds also helped pay for the fire station on Eastfield Road, Bradford Park and Richard Barry Memorial Park. And the much anticipated N.C. 73 widening project, which attempts to make the best of a bad situation (specifically the undersized bridge over I-77) is finally nearing completion.
The current priority list includes $42 million in projects. The town board has begun discussing the possibility of putting a new bond referendum on the ballot this November.