Comparing SunRail to Charlotte: Commuter rail's economic impact

By Caroline Rowland, Reporter
Last Updated: Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 4:44 PM EDT

As the grand opening of SunRail in Central Florida gets closer, News 13 takes a look at the impact a similar commuter rail system has had on a region similar to ours: Charlotte, North Carolina. In this story, Caroline Rowland looks at how the LYNX Blue Line has changed the Charlotte skyline.

The Charlotte Art League now sits along the LYNX Blue Line, but it was there long before talk of the light rail system even began back in the mid-1990s.

"It was considered a dangerous area," said Carol Mueller, who helps run the Art League. "So dangerous, that some of the businesses put their meters on the front of the buildings."

Mueller said since LYNX -- unrelated to Central Florida's bus system of the same name -- opened in 2007 in Charlotte, she has watched the area around the gallery completely change.

"The area has improved immensely because of it," said Mueller. "There's no doubt the crime has gone way, way down."

Just right down the block is the Phat Burrito, a restaurant that has been open since the early '90s. Manager Rachel Easterling said the opening of LYNX has had a huge impact on her business.

"The fact that it goes straight through the neighborhood has really brought an awareness from a larger group of people," said Easterling.

Charlotte's South End has seen the most development because of the rail line, including new restaurants, shops, and especially housing.

Along the entire 9-mile stretch of the light rail line, over $3 billion in development has risen in the South End, mostly housing. Almost 7,000 new apartments have opened since 2005, and more projects are in the works.

"We are building new, in a pretty dramatic way, and in a way that's going to shape the development pattern of this city, and as far into the future as any of us can see," said Bob Morgan, CEO of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.

Retail space is also growing in Charlotte's. The LYNX drops riders right off at the Seventh Street Charlotte Public Market. Started in 2011, it's enjoyed most of its success from being right along the Blue Line.

As for the old businesses, like Phat Burrito, they are now going to be able to franchise, and the art gallery is planning new events and enjoying increased foot traffic every day.

"It's made an enormous difference to this city," said Mueller.

In Central Florida, city and county leaders in communities along the SunRail line hope the same will hold true here, as many have unveiled big development plans at each station, including restaurants and hotels.