Tar Heel Tattler - January 2005

Harris sinks more than money in Saks project
By Edward Martin

Most Charlotteans who live around Quail Hollow Country Club know their Saks from a hole in the ground. In a tale with twists befitting a store that once hoped to sell them $2,000 Louis Vuitton handbags, they thought they were getting the former. They got the latter instead.

What happened? Developer Dee Dee Harris says things went awry when a letter she sent to city officials, suggesting the public kick in some of the $200 million cost, became public. “I don’t even put notes on my refrigerator now.”

The city balked, financing fizzled, and Saks bolted. So, instead of a Saks, a five-star hotel, shops and an underground parking lot camouflaged by formal gardens, neighbors have an 18-acre moonscape. Land was excavated in February 2004. “It’s just a big ugly hole, and now they’ve put a big ugly fence around it,” says Dan Marks, who lives nearby.

Village at Seven Eagles, where the Saks was to have been, was no hasty concept. Harris is the wife of insurance executive Cameron Harris, whose grandfather — Cameron Morrison — was governor from 1921 to 1925. She formulated the plan more than 10 years ago. The Harris family has a long track record in Charlotte’s retail development, including SouthPark mall. In April, though, city officials released a letter in which she suggested that her company might need public help to finish the project. The letter wasn’t meant to be a formal request, she says. “I’ve always used paper as my therapist.”

City politicians brushed it aside. Meanwhile, Birmingham, Ala.-based Saks grew impatient, possibly because its first Tar Heel store — at Triangle Town Center in Raleigh —was thriving. Saks shredded its lease with Harris in November, though a spokeswoman says the company “will continue to monitor the luxury retail market in Charlotte.”

November brought another twist. Tar Heel voters approved tax-increment financing in which future taxes from projects such as Village at Seven Eagles can be used to finance publicly issued bonds to build them. Harris says Village at Seven Eagles will create about 500 jobs, but key city officials say they’ve heard nothing more from her.

The outlook? Although several City Council members have said they’re willing to consider helping finance the project under the new law, others say no way. So Marks suggests filling the hole, planting grass and using the site for baseball or soccer fields. The score so far: Raleigh 1, Charlotte 0.