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Spirit of Independence Boulevard 

Struggling shops on one of Charlotte's busiest roads wait for change

Depending on how you drive into the city, Independence Boulevard is often the first thing you see as you come into Charlotte.

Car dealerships and apartment complexes sit on one end of the thoroughfare. But drive down further, toward Interstate 277, and Independence turns into a smattering of open businesses surrounded by big-box stores. The shops used to be full of life; now most of them are boarded up and for sale.

How do remaining retailers survive on a corridor where it's tough to make a left turn to visit a store? And what does the city plan to do to make that section of Independence viable again?

For Earth Angel, a specialty store that sells bikinis and exotic dance wear in the Coliseum Shopping Center, business has dropped off some since Independence began changing into a freeway. Paul Williams, owner of the shop, said he's operated at this location for 15 years and remembers when the boulevard was filled with businesses.

"As of 2002, 2003, every spot here was full, the next shopping center was full," he said, "and that's when they started [doing road work] on this part of Independence. When they started doing the road, they kind of messed it up for a lot of people."

While the construction along Independence has caused hardship for businesses currently housed in that location, city officials say the purpose of development along one of Charlotte's most traveled roads is to establish "growth and reinforce existing neighborhoods for continued stability and livability."

Williams said specialty shops along Independence survived, but chain stores like Eckerd (recently renamed Rite Aid) and Office Max -- which have locations in other areas of Charlotte -- didn't make it.

"We're kind of like a destination place. If you're a little bit different [you can make it]. We get customers from all over because there's not an alternative on every corner," said Williams.

"We're still here and we plan on staying here," he said. The reason he doesn't want to move, like so many other businesses in the area, is because of Wal-Mart. For the last four years, Williams said there has been talk of putting a Wal-Mart in the shopping center. He thinks that Earth Angel will benefit from the crowds that are sure to go to Wal-Mart -- when, and if, it ever opens.

"There are some issues they have to work through before [Wal-Mart opens]," he said.

According to City Councilwoman Nancy Carter, who represents the east side of Charlotte, one of the road blocks for Wal-Mart is contamination from a former dry cleaner in the shopping center.

"We're doing some major studies for Independence," said Carter. "There is a major marketing study that is in process right now and expected to be completed in the spring of next year."

While the city is studying what to do with Independence, some business owners (such as Williams) are in a holding pattern until something changes.

But other business owners say they are actually thriving on Independence.

Car Stereo Warehouse moved into the old Freeman's Car Stereo building after the shopping center it called home for 8 years fell into disrepair. Car Stereo co-owner Arsalan Makani said the stereo shop is a small, family business, and when the construction on Independence started, they were worried that their customers would find some place else to shop. But they didn't.

Makani said people braved the atrocious road conditions and traffic to get over to his business.

"When we were down at the old shop, we were getting worried during the construction. It was just meant to be that the customers drove over the broken road. It really didn't affect us as much as we thought it was. I know one change from that shop to this shop is that this is more visible to the road, and I've been getting more new customers," he said.

The Car Stereo Warehouse storefront is bright yellow and the newest looking thing on that end of Independence near the I-277 exchange. Makani said when it came time to relocate the business, he and his family didn't consider another location.

"We felt like this is one of the main streets in Charlotte and [the new location] is close to the old shop," said Makani. "And it made it easier for our customers to find."

And it also helps that it's the only car stereo store in the area.

But navigating Independence to support businesses isn't easy; Carter said that has a lot to do with the N.C. Department of Transportation, which is determined to turn the boulevard into a freeway.

"There will be a freeway there," she said. "That's NCDOT's goal in life to create a freeway along Independence, and we have to deal with that."

Tom Warshauer, a manager in the city's economic development office, said the city supports a freeway on Independence.

"That's a very congested area of town and a freeway is needed to deal with Charlotte's growth and projected growth," he said.

But what about the businesses along Independence? Will the city's plans make allowances for them?

"A lot of the retail in that area is obsolete," said Warshauer. "People don't shop in strip malls anymore."

Both Carter and Warshauer said that the best plan for Independence Boulevard will have transportation initiatives and land use that will enhance the neighborhoods around the area. Carter is pushing for light rail on Independence. In the meantime, the boulevard's remaining businesses just want more customers.

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