Twenty 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.
More than 80,000 residents now call the area home. In spite of the lake's inevitable growing pains, most say they couldn't be budged with a dredger.
Lake Norman, like Lake Wylie, its sister lake to the south, is a "working" lake, created by Duke Energy for the generation of hydroelectric power. Both are part of the Catawba River system. Norman is the larger of the two lakes though, with 520 miles of shoreline in four counties - Mecklenburg, Iredell, Lincoln and Catawba. At nearly 34 miles long and 8 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.
There are nearly a dozen marinas that offer wet or dry boat storage starting at $1,000 annually. If you're putting your own boat into the water, public access ramps are available at Jetton Park, Blythe Landing and Ramsey Creek Park in the Cornelius/Huntersville area. Iredell County public access areas include Hager Creek Access at Exit 33 and McCrary Creek Access, Pinnacle Access and Stumpy Creek Access off Highway 150. In the Denver area on Lake Normans west shore, head to Little Creek Access Area on Webb's Chapel Road or the Beatties Ford Access Area on Unity Church Road. Catawba County boaters can choose from several marinas on lower Lake Norman south of the Highway 150 bridge or Long Island Access Area on Burton Drive.
Unless you're on a boat or have access to private land, Lake Norman State Park in Troutman is the only place swimming is allowed from Lake Norman shores. The park also offers boat ramps, picnic shelters, campsites and hiking trails.
When Charlotteans refer to the Lake Norman area, they usually mean the area north of the Harris Boulevard/Interstate 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. Proximity between the Queen City and the lake, lower home prices, less traffic and quiet communities catapulted Huntersville's population to more than 40,000 today.
Two-lane country roads once woven through pastoral farmland are now clogged with cars, and the wide-open space is becoming increasingly filled with new housing, offices and retail development.
Although much of the retail and residential areas in Huntersville are new, the town also has 18 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 more than 19,000 today. The catalyst to growth in Cornelius was a town-financed water-sewer project along West Catawba Avenue in the late 1980s. Large, upscale developments such as The Peninsula arrived, adding hundreds of homes to the area.
Services and shops residents needed 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.
New subdivisions, office parks and retail shops in Cornelius have brought prosperity, but along with it, crowded schools, roads and public services.
By 2010, the strategic plan calls for a West Catawba to become a tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly boulevard with four lanes, a center median and bike lanes. The Town Board also recently approved the extension of Bailey Road to the River Run area of Davidson.
Some improvements are arriving faster than the roads. Cornelius opened a new fire station in the west part of town in 2001 and built a new police station on the east side in 2002.
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. The brand new, 18-acre town-owned and operated Torrence Chapel Park features ball fields, tennis courts, jogging trails, basketball and picnic shelters.
Of the three North Meck towns, Davidson has been most resistant to Lake Norman growth.
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 towns small liberal arts school founded in 1837 by the 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 movied here for the small-town atmosphere, tranquility and easygoing pace.
While Huntersville and Cornelius experienced massive growth in the 1990s, Davidson grew by just over 3,000 residents. Today the small college town has just over 8,100 residents.
Controlling growth has been a controversial issue in Davidson. A few years ago, town planners envisioned a "smart growth" plan in which developers are required to set aside 50 percent of land in new developments for open space. Builders also must incorporate connector streets into new neighborhoods and find a way to manage subdivision growth before sewer service is installed in the new areas.
Across the three-town area in North Mecklenburg, planners have struggled to manage growth and provide services while preserving the warmth and small-town charm that attracts new citizens.
Area residents can now take advantage of the $56 million Presbyterian Hospital Huntersville, on Highway 73 at Interstate 77, Exit 23. The 50-bed hospital offers a range of medical services for the area.
The boom in population has been music to the ears of homebuilders and real estate agents. Newcomers can choose from a broad range of home styles and prices in gated communities, family-friendly neighborhoods with sidewalks and bike trails, waterfront condominium communities with boat slips or spacious luxury apartments.
Many neighborhoods offer private golf facilities and amenities such as a residents club or country club that offers swimming, tennis and dining facilities. These include The Peninsula Club in Cornelius, River Run Country Club in Davidson, and NorthStone Club in Huntersville.
Birkdale Golf Club, part of a 600-home master-planned community in Huntersville that includes a residents'club, has one of the best public courses in the state.
Neotraditional neighborhoods sometimes referred to as "new urban design," have recently become a trend in the Huntersville/Cornelius area. By combining homes, shops, service businesses and restaurants in a self-contained community linked by sidewalks and open green space, they offer a new twist on the village concept.
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.
Above the retailers, The Apartments at Birkdale Village feature 45 different floor plans among 320 units, with everything from a loft to a three-bedroom with garage. Residents receive discounts at Birkdale Village retailers and have exclusive use of a club house, business center, swimming pool and workout room.
Just down the street from Birkdale, Kenton Place is another new retail-residential-office center. Highlights include a movie theater, ice cream shop and The Galway Hooker, an authentic Irish pub that offers live music and outdoor movies.
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.
Residential development around Mooresville's shoreline followed the same path as other waterfront towns. First cabins and mobile homes appeared, then permanent homes and finally lakefront communities.
Charlotteans began leaving the city for 30-minute commutes and a peaceful life on the lake. NASCAR teams flocked to the area for its proximity to Lowe's Motor Speedway. Folks who grew up in Mooresville returned to raise families in the bustling new community.
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.
Retail development also is on the upswing, especially at Exit 33 on the corner of Williamson and Brawley School roads where Morrison Plantation has a 72,000-square-foot shopping center anchored by Harris Teeter. Brooklyn Boys Neighborhood Pizzeria is a local family favorite among the service businesses and locally owned eateries.
The 450-acre Morrison Plantation, which also has an entrance on N.C. 150 at Exit 36, has 1.3 million square feet of commercial space, 285 town homes and 170 condominiums.
Not far from the retail center at Morrison Plantation, a two-story medical office, Mooresville Family YMCA and three-story brick live/work town homes.
Just down the street from Morrison Plantation, Winslow Bay Commons recently opened with 430,000 square feet of shopping, including the areas first Super Target, TJ Maxx, Dick's Sporting Goods, Michael's, Pier 1 Imports, World Market and PETsMART.
On Main Street across from a proposed rail-line stop, the former Burlington Industries plant on Main Street, vacant since 1999, is being converted into a 600,000-square-foot motorsports business park called Victory Lane Mills.
Also downtown, Mooresville plans a new 30,000-square-foot public library with a $2 million gift from Lowe's. Depending on where you live in the Mooresville area, students attend classes in either the Mooresville Graded School District or the Iredell-Statesville School District. The latter, which serves the area outside the Mooresville city limits, opened its fifth high school, Lake Norman High, in 2002.
With continued growth of homes and the Lowe's corporate campus, Mooresville is making many significant road improvements. The N.C. Department of Transportation will rework Exit 33 off I-77, widen Brawley School Road and build a new interstate exit at Langtree.
By 2012, Mooresville also hopes to have the commuter rail North Meck line running from Charlotte's Center City through Lake Norman towns and the south Iredell corridor.
Health-care providers also have responded to the needs of Lake Norman residents. Lake Norman Regional Medical Center recently movied 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.
Leading the charge is Crosland Commercial's Mooresville Gateway development, which will include everything from fast-food eateries and convenience stores to hotels and medical offices.
Recreation in the Mooresville area includes Queen's Landing, home of the Catawba Queen and Catawba Belle, 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, tennis courts, a restaurant and deli/bar.
Lake Norman State Park, north of Mooresville in Troutman, includes 1,400 acres with six miles of nature trails, a beach and swimming area, picnic shelters, campsites and boat rentals.
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.
At the Lake Norman Raft-Up each July, hundreds of boats tie together to attempt to beat their own Guinness world record.
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 Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Brett Bodine and Ricky Rudd. 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.
Local golf courses include The Point (private), Mallard Head Country Club (semi-private) and Mooresville Municipal Golf Course (public).
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.
West Lake Norman
West Lake Norman which includes the eastern Lincoln County communities of Denver, Westport and Triangle and the Catawba County communities of Sherrills Ford and Terrell offer easy commutes to Uptown Charlotte, great water views and less congestion than the eastern shore of the lake.
The main thoroughfares are Highway 16, running north from Charlotte; Highway 73, running west from Huntersville; and Highway 150, running west from Mooresville.
Development on Lake Normans west shore dates to the days of the Catawba Indians who lived on the banks of the river bearing their name.
In comparison to eastern shores, Lake Norman's west side is still in its building infancy. Gently rolling pastures, rustic barns and old family farmhouses can still be found, along with close-knit communities, neighborhood get-togethers, church activities and a slower pace of life.
The western shore's small-town feel, rural atmosphere, friendly residents, focus on family and reasonable prices draw many folks who prefer to get away from the east side's traffic jams, shopping centers, interstate congestion and high prices.
Western shore residents know growth is coming their way, too, but the goal has become controlling it and staying ahead of the problems population booms can bring to small communities.
In the Lincoln County area of Denver, development is beginning to creep in from developers looking for lower prices, eastern shore spillover and the widening of Highway 16 from Charlotte. More than 20 percent of Lincolns 67,000 residents moved to the western shores of Lake Norman over the past decade.
Newer neighborhoods in east Lincoln include SailView, a Crescent Communities neighborhood with waterfront and interior homes from the low $300,000s to more than $1 million. Located east of Highway 16 in Denver, SailView includes amenities such as a swim and tennis club, community boat slips and family activities such as an Independence Day parade, free movies for children and bunco groups.
Verdict Ridge, developed by former Charlotte mayor Eddie Knox, also continues to build upscale golf course and wooded-view homes starting in the $200,000s. Set in the rolling foothills down Little Egypt Road off Highway 73, Verdict Ridge features a challenging 18-hole PGA golf course, serene lakes, quiet woodlands and an activity-filled clubhouse with a pool and cabana, tennis courts and playground.
Governor's Island, one of the first mansion-lined developments on Lake Norman, juts out from the western shore on a thin strip lined with sprawling homes. By car, the neighborhood is north of the Highway 16/Highway 73 intersection off of Webb Chapel Road.
Also near the Highway 16/Highway 73 crossroads off South Pilot Knob Road are three communities: Waterside Crossing, The Gates at Waterside Crossing and The Bluffs at Waterside Crossing. All three communities have neighborhood swim clubs, playing fields, a short walk to shopping and a five-minute drive to public boating access.
To compensate for the recent population boom along the western shore, especially among families with young children, Lincoln County Schools opened St. James Elementary and North Lincoln High in 2003.
Lincoln Medical Center, a 101-bed hospital which is part of the Carolinas HealthCare System, serves western shore residents with a 24-hour Emergency Department, Heart Center, Sleep Center and Chronic Pain Management program. The recently-opened Presbyterian Hospital Huntersville serves west side residents.
New residents who want to get involved in the community or learn more about issues affecting them can contact the East Lincoln Betterment Association (ELBA), a citizens group that lobbies for improvements and monitors growth issues along the western shore.
As rooftops on the western shore of Lake Norman continue to grow, so does retail.
The Highway 16/Highway 73 intersection is a major shopping spot, with grocery stores, service stores and free-standing fast-food restaurants. One of the newest commercial developments there is The Shoppes at Waterside Crossing, a $2.2 million shopping center with a Harris Teeter, Coffee & More, Arctic Stone Creamery and other specialty stores.
South on Highway 16 on the way to Charlotte, developers have recently opened Callabridge Commons at Mount Holly-Huntersville Road.
If you're looking for a place that's like what Lake Norman used to be before its explosive eastern shore growth, head to the Catawba County communities of Sherrills Ford and Terrell.
With a location that is the furthest away from Charlotte, no major highways and little water or sewer infrastructure, the northwestern corner of Lake Norman is by far the least developed.
Catawba County has 146,500 residents scattered across eight municipalities, and most still live in central and western parts of the area known as the Appalachian foothills, particularly in Hickory and Conover. These cities benefit from Interstate 40, mixed drink sales and heavy industrialization in furniture, textiles and fiber optics.
But the southeastern pocket of Catawba County is one of the fastest growing portions, jumping by 6,000 residents between 1990 and 2002. Growth projections are expected to remain high for the next 10 to 15 years, due to the demand of lake lots, relatively low prices and proximity to Charlotte. Additionally, the new Lowe's corporate center in Mooresville brings a number of jobs to the area.
To many area residents, good schools, less congestion, lower prices and a small-town way of life are worth the 45-minute to one-hour commute to Charlotte.
The population increase in the past few years has prompted Catawba County Schools to plan new schools and make additions to old schools in the southeastern part of the county to accommodate the rapidly growing area.
In anticipation of coming changes, Catawba County Commissioners adopted the Sherrills Ford Small Area Plan in 2003. Drafted by a group of volunteers who live in Catawba County's Lake Norman communities, the Sherrills Ford Small Area Plan explores current conditions and defines issues crucial to preserving quality of life in face of rapid change. Community leaders will use the plan to make decisions regarding future growth and development.
Area leaders are also discussing a commercial center at Highway 16/Highway 150 and a village center at Highway 150/Sherrills Ford Road.
Noteworthy attractions in the area include the Terrell Country Store at Highway 150 and Sherrills Ford Road, an 1891 country store with old-fashioned candy, homemade butter, hoop cheese, Amish jellies, hand-dipped ice cream and locally-made gifts.
Further west into Catawba County are the Bunker Hill Covered Bridge on Highway 70 in Claremont, one of the two remaining covered bridges in North Carolina; and Murray's Mill off Highway 10, a fully restored working grist mill dating to 1873.