Sunday, May 15, 2005

Concord Mills mall sparks Exit 49 boom

Average of 1 restaurant per quarter has opened in area, innkeeper says

GAIL SMITH-ARRANTS
Charlotte Observer Staff Writer

Ten years ago, there wasn't one restaurant at the Exit 49 interchange of Interstate 85.

As a matter of fact, there wasn't even an Exit 49.

When Concord Mills mall opened in 1999, it acted like a giant magnet for development, drawing restaurants, stores and hotels to western Cabarrus County.

Over the past four years, an average of one restaurant per quarter has opened in that area, said Garrett Jenio, general manager of the Wingate Inn at Exit 49.

He recently visited the strip shopping center behind Fire Mountain restaurant off Concord Mills Boulevard. He saw new businesses he hadn't realized were there. And he works at the interchange.

"That's the dynamics of this exit. It's so fast and the development is so hot," he said. "It's always something opening out here and something under construction."

That's why Jenio and other businesspeople along the bustling Concord Mills/Lowe's Motor Speedway corridor formed the Speedway Boulevard Association four years ago. He's chairman.

On the fast-changing development scene, the 35-member association is a marketing organization and a common voice for individual properties along the corridor.

At meetings, he said, members talk about how the restaurant development can be traced, such as "Carrabba's to Applebee's to Olive Garden to Red Lobster."

"You can plot it -- a minimum of one per quarter," he said.

"It is its own destination now," said Libba Barrineau, director of sales and marketing for the Cabarrus County Convention & Visitors Bureau. "People come just to Exit 49, whether to go shopping, to eat or to the speedway. They're not seeing county lines or city lines. They just know they're going to Exit 49," she said.

Four years ago, hotel sales managers and directors decided to put together a brochure highlighting all the hotel rooms at the exit, the restaurants and attractions, Jenio said.

The association has talked with the city of Concord about setting up a municipal service district, which would collect special taxes and designate the money toward speedway-area projects, such as streetlights, signs and beautification.

"It's something we will move toward, especially as the convention center starts to get under way," Jenio said.

The association's first brochure, in 2001, had about 10 restaurants listed. The most recent brochure, revised in April, lists from 20 to 30, he said -- and that's not all of them.

The association's Web site, www.speedway-blvd.com, offers a new Speedway Boulevard "fun card" with discounts and other incentives for consumers.

Barrineau, who moved here from Atlanta seven years ago, said the entire mall area "has provided not just food and shopping, but entertainment for my family as well."

Her favorite restaurant?

The Iron Thunder Saloon and Grill, which, she says, "has a great crab cake sandwich."

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