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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

The Epicentre's troubles are conjuring up a sense of deja vu

Chris Ballance
The Epicentere in uptown Charlotte is seen in an undated photo.

Let me tell you the story of the uptown entertainment center that got people in Charlotte all excited and then failed miserably.

No, not the Epicentre.

Cue the flashback music …

When I moved to Charlotte in the late ‘80s, at Sixth and College there was an uptown mall called Cityfair.

There were something like 60 occupants when it opened — shops, restaurants, offices, one of those Fat Tuesday places with the frozen cocktails. Every so often they cleared out the atrium for a concert. I saw Morris Day and the Time play there one night.

Here’s how desolate uptown Charlotte was back then: My wife worked nights at the Observer, and she and her co-workers would sprint to Cityfair on their dinner break because it was the only place they could get a quick bite to eat.

But Cityfair struggled from the start. They had counted on traffic from the uptown Belk store, but that store closed before Cityfair could open. There wasn’t a signature place that people were drawn to. It limped along for a few years, closed, reopened, then closed for good. Developers imploded it in 1999 to build Hearst Tower, which is now the Truist Center.

The Epicentre was a bigger and better version of Cityfair. It had a big draw — Whisky River, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s bar. It was open to the street so you could drive by and see people hanging out. It had bright lights and fancy escalators. And when it opened in 2008, it was hopping.

But the first owners filed for bankruptcy protection, and then the new owners sued the developers, and then the complex got sold again, and it always felt like the Epicentre was on shaky financial ground.

A series of violent incidents also drove people away — especially the 2019 death of an out-of-town CEO who died from a stray bullet fired after a fight at the complex.

COVID-19 just about finished off what was left of the place. There are still some shops and restaurants there, but it’s quiet even on the weekends, and the Uber line doesn’t clog College Street anymore.

The problem with places like the Epicentre and Cityfair is that they’re such big bets. So much money is riding on them that one or two problems can sink the whole thing. Charlotte’s most successful nightlife has grown in smaller pieces, more organically. Even South End, which developed around the light rail, grew one or two shops and bars at a time.

Instead of swooning over one big project, maybe Charlotte should encourage smaller projects uptown — maybe give incentives to business people who want to try something new. If one of those new things hits, that’s something uptown could build around.

Otherwise, we’re going to repeat the same mistakes. And we’re already at the point when somebody says the phrase “failed uptown entertainment center,” you have to ask, “Which one?”

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.