Incoming Mayor Has Deep Roots in Davidson
In the recent municipal election, town residents overwhelmingly elected Rusty Knox as the next Davidson mayor. Knox belongs to a family with deep roots in the community and region, and in his campaign, he promised to protect the way of life that has made the town attractive.
Q: What’s your opinion of the board’s approval of the hotel on November 14?
A: I didn’t like the vote. It was not a safety issue to me, it was a quasi-ethical issue of encroachment into the West Side. It was also a black and white land use ordinance issue. The ordinance did not provide for a hotel, and the conditional variations for parking, building height, tree canopy and impervious surface were all variances. I felt we were catering to what the developer wanted instead of doing what we should have done for the people of Davidson.
Q: What’s the history of the Knox family in north Mecklenburg?
A: My dad, Russell, was born on a farm out East Rocky River road at the end of Ralph Knox Road. Dad was one of eight kids, all of whom were born in that little farm house, which no longer exists. My grandfather Ralph was a cotton farmer, and was instrumental with some others in starting the Farm Bureau in Mecklenburg County.
My father got drafted and went to Korea, and when he came back he was finishing up at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. My mom had graduated from Queens College and was working at the Thornwell Orphanage in Joanna, South Carolina. Mom came due with me unexpectedly and they couldn’t make the hospital in Greenville. So, I was born right there at Thornwell Orphanage. We moved back to Davidson after dad graduated, when I was 18 months old. Dad always wanted to live in Davidson, and he pretty much did that. He was born here, raised here, went to school here, worked here, and died here. You don’t find many people that deep-rooted in their community.
I’m the oldest of the four siblings, and three of us still live in Davidson. My sister Beth and I work now for Allen Tate Realty, which used to be Knox Realty. My brother Doug does independent property management, and my brother Mike is an attorney in Charlotte. I attended the old Davidson School on South Street, which is now the Lake Norman Christian School. I graduated from North Mecklenburg High School in 1975 and graduated at Pfeiffer College in 1979 with a degree in health and physical education, and in parks and recreation management.
I played baseball at Pfeiffer all four years as a left-handed pitcher. My freshman year we came to Davidson and I pitched my only collegiate no-hitter. For me growing up here, that was a big deal!
After I graduated from Pfeiffer, we moved back here for two years, and I worked with Maintenance Supply Company in Huntersville. My wife at the time was from Durham. Her dad used to be associate dean of the divinity school at Duke, and we thought Maintenance Supply was going to move us to Durham, but they moved me to Fayetteville, instead. I cried, and she cried, and we moved to Fayetteville. I worked with them for about three years, and for the next ten I was sales manager for a commercial construction company that did pre-engineered metal buildings. When I had the opportunity to come back to Davidson in 1994, I jumped. We had three boys who were in the seventh, fifth, and second grades, at the time. When I got divorced in 1998, I raised three teen-aged boys by myself.
I remarried 11 years ago to Danielle, who has started her own interior architecture and design business. We have her two kids living with us. Jacob is a senior at Hough, and Kamryn is a sophomore. I’ve been through the gauntlet with schools for many years. We’re doing the college selection dance with Jacob right now.
Q: Did your father’s service as mayor of Davidson affect your household?
A: Dad was not involved in politics until I was out of the house. He ran for town board in 1983 and then was mayor for 12 years before he retired in 1997. I was in Fayetteville, but I was still interested from a distance in what was going on in Davidson. We’d come back once a month or so to visit, and had subscriptions to the Mecklenburg Gazette and Charlotte Observer. So, I kept up with the pulse of the town that way. Even though I moved three hours away, I never really left Davidson. I always had a foothold here and called it home.
Q: When did you start thinking about running for mayor, and what pushed you to carry through with it?
A: I got involved four and a half years ago with the Catalyst project. That sparked my interest, not necessarily for running, but in the process of governance. The town entered into a public-private venture with the North Carolina School of Government to make major changes downtown, and it looked to me like they were going to destroy the fiber of downtown, which for me is hallowed ground. So, the night that the Catalyst project was presented in Town Hall, I created a Facebook group called “Paradise Lost” about Davidson and the perils of growth. That “Paradise Lost” also turned into a song title from my first CD.
I had spoken out in 2006 when the town was looking at buying the bankrupt Adelphia Cable system. I felt that it was being sold to us as a utility, when it wasn’t a utility. Gas, water, and electric are utilities; cable is an option. And it’s proved to have been a bad financial decision. Look at it any way you want, and it’s still a failing product.
Q: Your mayoral campaign involved a lot of on-line activity. How effective do you think that was?
A: I like social media, if it’s used properly. More than I expected, people got engaged with the Paradise Lost page. I ended up having to censor some people when activity got too personal. I’ve always thought that criticism of policy is fine, but criticism of individuals is not. I’ve kept the site for more than four years and I occasionally make some pertinent personal observations. Like last night when I was upset over the hotel vote. I posted one line, and it said, “And you wonder why the votes turned out like they did on November 7!?” That was it. It was a direct objection to the vote, but I didn’t criticize anyone individually.
Q: Why run for mayor rather than commissioner?
A: I didn’t want a vote. I felt like a single vote as a commissioner was not the most important thing. For me the mayor sets the tone and serves as the leader. The mayor’s got to build bridges between the staff and elected officials, and between the citizens and the staff.
And that’s what I’m good at. I’m good at building relationships. I have already begun talking to all the elected officials in adjoining communities, and they’re as excited as I am about building relationships in a much more proactive manner than has been done in years past.
Q: What were the main factors in your electoral success?
A: I probably talked to literally 3,000 people. Three or four nights a week I was in a house talking to a husband and wife or a group of 50, and some of those were arranged through Save Davidson. But let’s be clear. I’m a member of that group, but not a spokesman. I appreciate their endorsement and appreciate their intent. But online it seems like Save Davidson created a lot of animosity toward Town Hall. And the more they pushed, the more town hall pushed the other way. Both Save Davidson and Town Hall ended up creating a lot of friction.
But in all my conversations the important emotion was concern over losing our Davidson. I’m a real estate broker, so I’m not anti-growth, either. People just feel they’ve been left out of the process, and that the process was flawed.
It’s not whether we’re going to grow. People know you can’t stop that, but they feel like it’s happening too fast. I remember learning to drive on Main Street on a Sunday, because there were no cars coming through town on Sundays in 1973. But the high-density growth model the town has adopted for the past four-to-six years has been disconcerting. We’re outpacing the improvements to our infrastructure.
So, it’s the method of growth that’s a problem. Nobody wants to see four lanes on Main Street, and no one wants to see buildings on the Village Green. You can’t be all things to all people. For instance, our small bit of retail business downtown is nice, but at the end of the day when you need to shop you go to the other I-77 exits, or order on Amazon. We need to embrace what we’re good about, which is being a small college town.
Q: What are your first priorities as mayor?
A: Someone asked me the other day “Aren’t you scared?” But I assure you there’s not a fiber in my body that’s afraid of what I’m undertaking. I’m going to be fine doing this.
My first priority is to make sure this perceived divide we have in town is healed. I think realistically there’s not too many people involved. There’s maybe 30 to 50 people who need to come to the table and break bread. Everyone has to realize that at the end of the day we all want the same thing. But we’ve got different levels of hurt in town that need to be healed.
In my canvassing the West Side, most of the African American residents told me that nobody has cared about them since my father was mayor, and he retired in 1997 so that means 20 years of folks have felt that way. That’s wrong. It hurts me to hear that because they’re every bit as important to this community as the guy who just moved here last week, or the River Run guy who’s been here for 30 years. We’re all equal citizens of Davidson so that separation of east side and West Side needs to go away. That’s one thing I want to address as quickly as possible. I think there’s an easier fix than a lot of people think. You don’t have to form a committee or a group; individuals just need to grab a paint brush and pitch in.
I also want the new board to come together and outline a 90 to 120-day vision of what we want to accomplish. We need to set a time frame for reviewing our zoning ordinance and our land use plan. Our comprehensive plan is going to be reviewed in 2019 anyway because it’s 10 years old and has to be reviewed, regardless of a new administration, but there’s controversy over the land use plan and the ordinance.
The land plan says we will have single family attached and detached homes and 12.5 percent affordable housing, and commercial mixed use. The only neighborhood in this town that has achieved that perfectly is St. Albans.
Summer’s Walk does have affordable housing and attached single-family and detached single-family. But they went to the town and said “Economically we can’t meet the commercial requirements of the plan. Can we change the zoning to town homes?” The answer is “No!” Not “yes.” But Town Hall approved a zoning change. What they should have done was down-zone it to agricultural, so you ease their tax burden by 90%, which would let them hang on to the land until such time as they can develop it economically. Or you sell it to someone who can develop it. If you put requirements in the ordinance, you should have to enforce them.
Q: Do you think the town has done a good job with affordable housing?
A: I’m a giant proponent of affordable housing and diversity of housing, but if you can’t do it within the requirements of the plan, you shouldn’t be able to do it. To accommodate it, they came up with this “payment in lieu” plan. Our ordinance says 12.5% of a new development has to be affordable housing, but you can pay $26,500 per house and buy your way out of it. That hasn’t worked very well.
I would like to consider a plan to incentivize building affordable homes. Do the math. Say I’ve got 100 acres. The ordinance says 50% of it has to be open space, and 50% of that has to be publicly accessible improved land, so 25 acres has to be a park of some kind. You go to the developer and say “Build me a park of some kind. Or we’ll save you the $500,000 cost of a park, and you can just build me five houses that will be affordable.” Give them an either/or decision because that’s an enforceable deal.
Yes, the town has $600,000 in the till right now for affordable housing, and is supposed to get another $400,000 from a development underway now. So, we’re going to have a million dollars for affordable housing. That sounds like a lot, but it’s just seven houses built, and that’s not a lot.
It’s a similar situation with protecting the West Side. A lot of people have said “Let’s go to Mecklenburg County and get it declared as a historic neighborhood.” But if you declare it historic, the people who live there now won’t be able to afford to keep them up. There are about 875 African American individuals who live in our town now, and most of them are in the West Side—Lakeside Terrace, Mock Circle, Crane Street, and Potts Street. Those homes are located in the village infill overlay area, which is subject to gentrification, and residents there are feeling the squeeze from realtors and lawyers, almost daily.
A developer knows that you need 60 feet of road frontage to build a home on a lot. A lot of the West Side houses are on 130-foot-wide lots. A developer can approach an elderly couple there and say, “I’ll give you $150,000 for your house,” and the couple takes the money. But they can’t find another house in Davidson for $150,000 and must move out of town.
The developer comes out like a king. He owns the lot and pays $10,000 to remove the house. He’s got the water and sewer tap already in place for one lot, and it costs him $8,000 to install it on the other lot. He’s spent $170,000 for two lots he can sell for $200,000 each.
Here’s a better deal. The old couple could sell their house to the Davidson Housing Coalition (DHC). Let DHC remodel it and return it to them as a life estate. They get to keep their house until they’re dead and gone, and then the house goes back into the coffers of the DHC as home to the next deserving family.
That’s the only way we can protect them. Because it’s not the town’s duty to save the West Side. There’s a lot of private money and lot of private individuals who would support a process like that. My biggest fear is that someday you get off the interstate and come up Griffith Street and there across Algae Pond you see a $750,000 house at the end of Mock Circle. Then then I’d know my town’s gone.
I don’t want anybody on the West Side to sell, and I’ve been doing real estate and financial planning seminars there to help them make a choice. I’ll represent anyone on the West Side for free. Zero.
Q: Are you doing anything in particular to prepare yourself for this leadership role?
A: As dumb as it sounds, I’ve read 15 years of town board minutes. It sounds like “War and Peace,” but they’re only two or three pages
long. And since I’ve attended all but three or four board meetings in the last few years, I’m pretty savvy about what’s going on. I’ve read the land use plan a couple of times and found it harder to understand than the Bible, and it shouldn’t be.
I also attended the Charlotte Regional Transit group meeting as a guest. I downloaded all the documents for that meeting and found out that the agenda alone was 62 pages! But I downloaded that and the 70 pages of pertinent information that came with it, and in the last two days, I’ve read all 130 pages.
Q: What’s your strategy for growing the commercial tax base in Davidson?
A: There are a few areas I want to look at. There’s about 14 acres of land at the first circle at 30. On one side is MSC with about five acres, and they’re supposed to build a sister building. And on the other side beside the Davidson Clinic is a hotel site. I want to revisit those two to see if we can’t get them out of the ground quicker. But there’s also another 8-1/2 acres on the southeast quadrant of exit 30 that has potential for development. I would like to see some sort of campus environment of offices there.
The other area to look at is the failed Davidson East commercial project out at Highway 73. It’s already been approved, and there’s a lot of land ready for development. I’d like to see a business campus building there. It wouldn’t negatively affect traffic because in the next few years Highway 73 is going to be four lanes and keep cars away from the downtown area.
Q: What strategy will you bring to divest us from Continuum that previous administrators haven’t been able to do?
A: I’ve had three conversations with different members of the Continuum administration in Mooresville. For me we’re at a crucial point. As of last year, we owe $68 million to Continuum. It was also the first year the firm turned a profit, but the debt service on the note was almost $5 million more than the profit. That’s not going to get any better. Even if the profit margin stays the same and we start paying down the note, it’ll be another 12-15 years before we ease the burden of our million-dollar annual cap.
As of now Continuum is just paying the bills, and not upgrading the product. I’m afraid in a few years technology is going to take that next leap, and we’ll be stuck with a bunch of trucks and fiber optic cable and a huge debt.
What we’ve got now is the potential for a client base of 120,000 or 130,000 people that we might be able to leverage with Spectrum or Windstream, if they’re interested in buying us out.
Remember that our name is not on that note. It’s Mooresville’s name alone. We have an interlocal agreement with them that says we’ve agreed to assume 30% of the loan. They would have to get on board with us regarding selling Continuum, but if we sold at market value we’d lose about $20.5 million between the two towns. Our 30% of that is about $6 million, and a 20-year bond package at 4% is about $385,000 a year to pay off that $6 million. I don’t know of anyone in this town that wouldn’t vote for a bond package to alleviate that $1 million debt for a $385,000 payment.
Mooresville’s got to get on board with that, and I’ve talked to a lot of them about it. Matt Fort, one of our new commissioners, is a CPA and his job with Rubbermaid is looking at the companies they own to determine how to make them profitable, or make them profitable enough to sell, or sell them. We’ve never had anyone with that sort of expertise on the board. I think the answer is to move soon to exit this thing.
Q: What do you think was the mood of the voters that made your campaign so successful?
A: I’m a bleeding heart liberal Democrat, and feel a high level of positive-ness. It’s the type of hope and response as when Obama got elected in 2008, except on a very small town-sized scale. I think voters recognized the opportunity for change. It wasn’t Mayor John Woods, and it wasn’t the board. It wasn’t planning for the hotel or a possible development on Beaty Street. It was just people wanting an overall change.
That’s where my heart is now. During the campaign I wrote this song called “Our Hometown.” It didn’t go viral or anything but it’s a really cool song about Davidson—everything from McEver Field to Barger Farm, Ms. Evelyn Carr to the Wildcats and the Farmer’s Market and Mike at Big Oak Farm. I really feel like a steward to all those people and everyone else.
I didn’t run to make people happy. I ran to do what I can to take care of our town. My skin is very thick, and I know I’ve got a bull’s eye on my back every time I walk out the door with this job. I’m fine with that. The difference is that I not only listen to people, I hear them.
Bill Giduz was the son who followed his father’s footsteps into journalism. He has been involved his entire life with news and photography in schools he attended and jobs he’s held. He believes now that he’s got a few good years left to devote to The News of Davidson.