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Gaston Graft and the Garden Parkway

What do Robert Pittenger, David Hoyle, and Duke Energy all have in common?  All three invested millions of dollars on land in southern Gaston County.  Pittenger is the managing partner of Stagecoach Road, LLC.  In 2005, Stagecoach Road spent $1.3 million on a large parcel.  In 2007, Pittenger’s company bought another plot for $1.6 million.  In addition to these purchases, the Gaston Gazette documents Pittenger’s 2004 purchase of over 300 acres for $4.6 million. David Hoyle joined with three other investors to create the humbly named “4 Star Investors, LLC” which then sunk $6.4 million dollars into the purchase of nearly 350 plots of land over a two year period.  Likewise, Duke Energy sunk millions into nearby property through its investment subsidiary.

You may be wondering what these properties all have in common.  The answer: they all ended up conveniently placed near interchanges along the proposed route of the “Garden Parkway.”  Although there had been discussions about a potential Highway 321 bypass, the potential routes were not known to the public at the time these purchases were being made.  In fact, the fate of the entire project was uncertain.  And while Pittenger, a Republican state senator at the time, at least had the decency to sit out on several votes citing a conflict of interest, Hoyle, then a Democrat state senator, voted at least three times to advance the project after his investment and, according the the Charlotte Observer, was “widely credited as the driving force behind the $1.25 billion expressway.”

Hoyle insists that the Garden Parkway didn’t factor into his investment decision, but apparently he forgot to pass the memo to his family members and business partners.  His son, David Hoyle, Jr. indicated that construction on their planned development would be completed just as the parkway was completed, contradicting his father’s claim that he would be finished with the property before the Parkway ever opened, and the Charlotte Observer reported the following from Hoyle’s business partner, Ben Rudisill:

4-Star partner Ben Rudisill said the parkway is an important part of its development plans, especially the retail. “We’ll get shoppers coming over from the Mecklenburg side,” Rudisill said. “(The parkway) will be big.”

The same Observer article also provides a laundry list of industry analysts who all reach essentially the same conclusion: Hoyle’s development project will flop if the Garden Parkway isn’t built.

But what about Duke Power?  It’s true that, unlike Hoyle and Pittenger, the power company is not a politician.  Duke doesn’t have a vote in Raleigh, but they do have the financial clout to help their friends.  Between 2004 and 2006 (the same time Pittenger was making his land deals), Duke Energy made four separate donations to the Pittenger campaign which totaled $5,500.  Although that may not sound like much in the context of Obama’s pledge to spend a billion dollars during this presidential cycle, it’s a lot for a State Senator.  The contribution secured Duke’s seat as one of Pittenger’s top donors.  Hoyle, the driving force behind the Garden Parkway, was showered with even more love.  From 2004-2008, Duke Energy contributed a whopping $20,000 to the Hoyle campaign.  That represents the maximum $4,000 donation each year for each of the five years preceding the announcement of the proposed route.

But there’s more.  The Garden Parkway was originally billed as a Highway 321, Gastonia bypass.  The current interchange at Interstate 85 and Highway 321 is absolutely horrendous.  It needs to be modified.  The original proposal sought to solve this problem by starting the proposed road at Highway 321, north of Gastonia.  It then wrapped around the western edge of the city and looped back across 321 on the south side of Gastonia before continuing to Interstate 485 where it intersected near the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.  We could argue about whether this was the best way to solve the problem, but at least the proposal addressed the core issue (the inadequate I-85/321 interchange).  That is no longer the case.

The budget for the project apparently wasn’t as big as the planners had hoped, and the project had to be scaled back.  So, what did the politicians cut from the route?  If you guessed, “the short section of road connecting Highway 321 and Interstate 85 that actually addressed the original problem,” you win the prize.  Notably, the cuts had no impact on the sections of road that bordered the property purchased by Pittenger, Hoyle, or Duke Energy.

Finally, there’s the small matter of state ethics laws.  North Carolina law requires politicians to recuse themselves from a vote if they would receive a financial benefit unavailable to a larger group.  Given that Pittenger recused himself from two turnpike bills, it seems he thought the project fit this description.  Apparently, Hoyle saw no such conflict as he spent considerable effort lobbying for the road.  When asked by the Observer, Hoyle said his lawyer had reviewed the transactions and concluded he’d done nothing wrong.  He added, “I just didn’t think anything of it … I’m a developer. I buy land, and I don’t buy land where there isn’t a road to get to it.”  Except, buying land “where there isn’t a road” is exactly what he did.  It was only after Hoyle’s purchases and legislative efforts that the Garden Parkway materialized.

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