Throughout the course of WFAE's Finding Home series, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing gentrification and the people who are displaced from their homes and neighborhoods as a result of it. On this installment of the series, we head to a little city west of Charlotte known for its quintessential Americana downtown and Mayberry feel.
Belmont is seeing steady growth as more find out it's so close to Charlotte yet so far away from the hassles of big city living — at least for now.
Sometimes as a journalist, it takes a little convincing to get someone to talk to you. Sometimes, that’s because they’re hiding something. That’s the case for Adrian Miller the city manager of Belmont.
"There are probably a lot of people in town that don't want me to do this interview, that don't want to get the word about Belmont out," Miller said.
Not because Belmont is this seedy place with a sketchy local government or crime-ridden streets. It’s quite the opposite.
"I would describe it as this fantastic small town where you can walk down the street and people are going to hello to you," Miller said. "You can get ice-cream. You can get freshly spun cotton candy downtown and stop in and have a drink, have dinner at some fantastic locally owned restaurants. We've got this beautiful park downtown that’s on the railroad tracks and when the train comes and that whistle blows, they all stop, run up to the tracks and wave to the engineer. So it really is small town America."
It’s this downtown charm that makes young families excited to move to Belmont.
"They’ve had their uptown experience and South End experience," Miller said. "Maybe now it's time to have a family and settle down and maybe they are priced out of Charlotte so they are coming over to Belmont."
About one person a day moves to Belmont. That’s a steady annual growth of about 2 percent, Miller said. The city has a population of about 11,400. Miller jokes it’s closer to Charlotte than Charlotte. On a day with little traffic, it’s about a 20 minute commute from downtown Belmont to uptown.
Miller said Belmont hasn’t done a ton of marketing to drive in new residents, but people and businesses are finding the city, and that means housing prices are going up.
The median sales price of homes in Belmont in January of this year was $267,000, according to data from the Carolina Multiple Listing Service known as MLS. That compares to $217,900 in January of 2018 and $220,000 in January of 2017. Overall in Gaston County, housing prices are up and inventory of houses is down, a clear sign of high demand.
"Our town is growing and it’s transforming from what it used to be and it's really exciting for some people and it's really scary for others," Miller said.
It’s on the minds of folks walking down the street, like lifelong Belmont resident Gary Elrod.
"I don't have a problem with any of the folks that are coming. It's just a little bit more cumbersome with the amount of traffic," Elrod said. "It makes it a little more difficult and takes a little bit more getting used to."
While traffic may be an inconvenience for some, Vincent Hill, the owner of Caravan Coffee and Dessert Bar, said it all depends on how you look at it.
"If you don't have traffic, you don't have a business," Hill said. "So I’ll accept that as a small problem."
And Hill has seen Belmont change and grow and develop that traffic. He’s been in this coffee shop for almost two decades and his wife runs the cake shop next door. It’s a great city to work in, he said. And you tell the city likes him. His shop is bustling with people meeting for coffee or working remotely.
Hill grew up in Gaston County and still has family in the area. But, surprisingly, he doesn’t live in Belmont. Hill actually lives in Charlotte. He said as much as Belmont has changed for the better, it’s also gotten pricier.
"The prices increased so if I were to move here, I would go back in debt," Hill said. "I'd rather drive."
But, it’s all relative.
Sam and Justin Carpenter spent five and a half years in one of Charlotte’s most popular neighborhoods: Plaza Midwood. Belmont to these millennials is nowhere near as congested or expensive as their Charlotte neighborhood was.
Their Belmont home is spacious with a garage and big yard surrounded by a wooded area. There’s a community pool and other young couples in their development.
It wasn’t that they wanted to leave Plaza Midwood, but they were getting lots of unsolicited calls from realtors and decided to make the move while the market was still good.
"There were things in Midwood we couldn't get without a high six-figure mortgage. We wanted a garage, a bigger yard, a little bit extra space would be helpful, and it really wasn’t achievable in Midwood," Justin said.
Plus, Sam said, quarters with the neighbors were tight.
"We lived in these kind of shotgun houses where if you stood in our driveway, you could touch the house next to us and if you stood in his drive, you could touch our house. We had the same layout," Sam remembered. "His bathroom light would shine into our master bedroom. It was awesome because you were really close to your neighbors, but at the same time you were really close to your neighbors - so much so, you could know which room in the house they were in."
She said they knew they wanted to have kids eventually and would need more space. But she did need a little convincing. So Justin decided to show her downtown Belmont.
"As soon as we drove through downtown, I was like 'this is aggressively charming,'" Sam said. "It was just really really cute and quaint and we didn't have a kid yet, but I could see oh this is the kind of spot where I would feel comfortable with running around here."
Fast forward and the Carpenters went from two to three. Their Belmont home gives their little daughter plenty of room to run around as well as their three dogs.
The Carpenter family has been in Belmont for going on three years now, and they’ve been pleasantly surprised by how close they still are to all the things they loved about Charlotte. Neither one of their commutes has gone up.
But in the back of their minds, they’re a little worried themselves as the word about Belmont gets spread.
"My worry is that it stays and feels like a small town," Sam said.
Don’t get the Carpenter’s wrong, it was hard to come to terms with leaving the historic Plaza Midwood neighborhood they loved. They miss being so close to bars and nightlife. And Sam admitted, she did shed some tears. But every time they start to get nostalgic for the old neighborhood, they quickly remember all the new condos and apartments going up and the congestion from that development.
Add that to being a part of a good school system for their daughter and it’s no contest. Belmont is home.
WFAE is taking a year-long look at Charlotte's affordable housing problem through our series, Finding Home. Every Monday in 2019, we’ll have stories that examine the problem, seek solutions, and bring you stories from neighborhoods small and large, both in and outside Charlotte. Don't miss a segment. Sign up for the Best of WFAE weekly newsletter to get the latest Finding Home along with the other most important news of the week.