BizWorthy: Better.com Plans Jobs For Charlotte; Future Of Plaza Midwood Land Uncertain

Sep 19, 2019

This week Charlotte had another big jobs announcement. Online mortgage company Better.com announced it is expanding in Charlotte, going from about 20 people to 1,000 in five years. It follows substantial job announcements for the city by Lowe’s, Avid Xchange and Truist.

Tony Mecia of the Charlotte Ledger joins WFAE' "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf now in this week’s Bizworthy segment.

Worf: Good morning, Tony. When can we expect these Better.com jobs to materialize?

Mecia: Well, Better.com came out this week and they said in the next five years they would like to hire 1,000 people in Charlotte. They're going to be creating these jobs initially at least out of a WeWork office in South End and really just hope to ramp it up. Better.com, or Better Mortgage as it's also known, is an online mortgage lender. And so what they allow you to do is just go on enter some information they say and very quickly get approved for mortgage loans and help speed up that process.

Worf: Better. com, it's a start-up but it's not a new business model. So how likely are they to succeed in this?

Mecia: Well, that's really a very good question. Compared with some of the other job announcements that we've seen in Charlotte there might be a little bit more of a question mark on this one. I think just because it is such a new company, it was started about three years ago. I mean, some of the other companies that are creating jobs here, you know, AvidXchange, Truist, Lowe's Home Improvement, I mean, these are established companies that already have a pretty sizable workforce, you know, they're profitable, that have shown that their business model works.

Better.com on the other hand is a startup. It's raised a whole bunch of money $234 million in venture capital. It has some big backers in Ally Financial and Goldman Sachs. But the business model is a little bit more, I would say, unproven in the sense that it's a very competitive industry. There are other players out there - Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans which is doing essentially the same thing that Better.com is doing. So I would put a little bit of a question mark on, you know, are these jobs actually - all thousand of them - going to be created.

Worf: You broke news last week that a big swath of rapidly changing Plaza Midwood is up for sale. So what's planned for the site?

Mecia: We don't really know what's planned for the site, it's still very early. We know that it's about a 12-acre site on the corner of Pecan and Central avenues in Plaza Midwood. You know, that's a pretty big site to be that close to town and so, you know, the idea that this is just going to be, you know, another luxury apartment building or something like that, I don't think that's what's headed there. I think you're likely to see something that's a little bit more creative, that's a little bit more mixed-use, that combines a bunch of different elements. You know, we certainly don't know what's going to be there. It could be years before this land is developed. It's a strip shopping center, most of it, right now.

But you know, Lisa, this is really something we're seeing playing out throughout Charlotte where you have a growing city, like Charlotte is, that's attracting a lot of people where land is becoming more valuable. You have these questions about growth and what does that do to the character of some of these neighborhoods that are closer in.

Worf: The parking lot there is known for some strict parking enforcement. But you also found it's known for something else.

Mecia: Yeah, I mean lately you've seen the headlines that the shopping center likes to tow people who park there and go to some of the restaurants across Central Avenue. But also, I found out that this is actually I don't know if you call it a historical site but it's the site where in 1934 Billy Graham as a teenager found Jesus Christ in a tent revival.

Worf: And there's no sign there marking that?

Mecia: There is no historical marker there. I mean it is sort of interesting now when you put together the headline Billy Graham found Jesus Christ in the Five Guys’ parking lot. That sort of raises some eyebrows but, you know obviously, it was a field at the time and there is a little bit of historical significance.

Worf: Indeed, indeed. Let's turn to opportunity zones. Your reporting on this was in the Wall Street Journal and The Ledger. First, what are these zones?

Tony Mecia
Credit GREG COLLARD / WFAE

Mecia: Opportunity Zones are census tracks that in the 2017 tax law create special incentives for investors to be able to reduce and defer capital gains taxes. Most ordinary people are not going to really have any advantage to investing in these but people who are wealthy, real estate investors that have significant capital gains taxes this is something that's very important to them because there are tax advantages to investing in these zones. These zones were created to help poor and distressed areas and they are census tracks that have high poverty rates in them.

Worf: And you found some of these zones that are designated such that don't seem like they're struggling?

Mecia: Well, it's interesting the way that the federal government put out the rules is all it had to do was have a certain level of poverty. They had to be high poverty. What they didn't account for is that some census tracks that are high poverty are by other measures wealthy. So, if you look at college towns a lot of college towns qualify as opportunity zones because they have high poverty levels in that the people living there are students with no incomes. And so, they look on paper as though they are high poverty so I looked in the piece in The Journal at a census track in Chapel Hill that includes Franklin Street, which I don't think anybody would say this is a distressed area.

Worf: It's a thriving area.

Mecia: A very thriving area. There's a Starbucks, there's a Cold Stone Creamery, there are breweries, wine bars, you know, that sort of thing. But it is attracting some investment because it's in this opportunity zone. And those investments, you know, then help create tax advantages.

Worf: Charlotte has some of these opportunity zones, too. Is a similar dynamic playing out here at all?

Mecia: The opportunity zones in Charlotte tend to be clustered to the north and the west of uptown. There's another a few of them around the Eastland Mall area. They're also attracting investment. I mean it's not like they're in the middle of Myers Park or Ballantyne but you know they are certainly attracting some investment. I mean the knock on some of these is it attracting investment that would have taken place anyway? We're seeing, you know, in uptown Charlotte, you know, we're seeing a tremendous growth in all directions and so are all parts of the opportunity zones actually distressed or are these places that would be attracting investment anyway? I think that's a fair question to ask.

And as an example of one of those investments, Grubb Properties in Charlotte spent $23 million to buy an office building on Franklin street, with a CVS and adjacent parking lot. They’re going to spend $12 million to convert the offices to a technology hub. The company’s vice president, Clark Spencer, told the News & Observer of Raleigh, “It’s a bit of ahead-scratcher why it’s an opportunity zone.”