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January 2004
Building Sustainability -- MECA Properties Revives the Old for the Sake of the New
By Heather Head

      For over 23 years now, Tony Pressley has championed the preservation and revitalization of Charlotte's earliest urban communities and business corridors in a manner sensitive to the community's rich past and the needs of current area residents, successfully transforming South End into a mecca of new urbanism.

     It was 1980 when Pressley left a lucrative career as circulation manager for The Charlotte Observer to pursue a more rewarding career in the real estate management business – and, as it turned out, mere months before the prime lending rate hit 21percent. Bad news even for established real estate businesses. “This is a business and an industry where the lifeblood is capital,” says Pressley. “That was my baptism – it was by fire.”

     But his previous experience on the business end of the Knight-Ridder company and a strong drive for survival gave Pressley what he needed to keep pressing on while many more established businesses were faltering.

     Pressley, a native Charlottean with an unassuming attitude, almost gives the impression that his leap into the uncertain and volatile real estate industry was impulsive or even a bit rash. He had gained some knowledge of the real estate business through his father, though, who had acquired over the decades a few small residential rental properties. As Pressley describes it, “I grew up in a household where real estate was spoken.”

     After 15 years in the newspaper business, Pressley had begun questioning whether he would be content to remain in that line of work. “That’s the point in a man’s life when, if you’re going to take on new challenges, you’d better do it,” says Pressley, “while you’re young enough to take on the risk.”

     So, when Pressley’s father passed away in 1980 leaving his rental properties for the family to manage, Pressley decided to make the career switch and the company that would become MECA Properties was formally born. Employees: one. Revenues: barely enough.

     Today, as president and CEO of the company, he and his company are thriving in a market where their specialty, urban development, has taken on a new cachet. But Pressley says that when he opened shop at 301 East Boulevard and began focusing on the South End area, he had not yet envisioned or predicted the revitalization that was to occur there, and in urban corridors across the nation, over the next twenty years. “I wasn’t that smart,” he says modestly. “And I don’t think it was that obvious.”

 

Growing into a Well-Developed Company

    At first, Pressley managed only the family properties, but immediately he began to look for additional business and opportunities for diversification. He created a business plan and sought business partners.

     “You begin to live firsthand many of the theories and many of the lesson plans that over the years you studied,” he says of starting the business. “Business plans become a life or death necessity.”

     According to Pressley, urban revitalization was an area of opportunity because “there weren’t many real estate practitioners concentrating in these first and second ring neighborhoods and what I call the original business corridors.” The majority were focusing either in the quickly sprawling suburban sections of town or directly downtown.

     Pressley’s initial business plan focused on the South End area while diversifying into multiple real estate specialties. “We are proud that we are locally owned and operated,” says Pressley, “so we define our geographical market deliberately.”

     In addition to property management, MECA now acts as a residential and commercial brokerage firm, and handles both residential and commercial development, focusing on the “original business corridors.”

     This year, MECA added a subsidiary – a franchise of Coldwell Banker Commercial – to handle the commercial brokerage side of the business. This increased MECA’s staff (including non-employee salespeople) to over 30, and contributed to increased revenues during what has been a down year for most real estate companies.

     In 23 years, MECA has distinguished itself on several fronts. “Our uniqueness is that we are locally owned and operated, and multi-faceted,” says Pressley. “We offer a combination of services that is not usually found in one place. We don’t focus on excelling in just one specialty; we excel by offering our bundle of services which are clearly first-tier.”

     In fact, Pressley is one of only a very few who have received the prestigious Realtor of the Year Award from both the residential (in 2001) and commercial (in 1995) boards of realtors.

     A slew of other awards graces the conference room shelves at MECA, testifying to the excellence of their work and their centrality in the Charlotte real estate community. Among them: Charlotte Business Journal’s top 15 entrepreneurs of the past 15 years in 2001; the 2001 Pegasus Award from the Charlotte Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America; the Charlotte Chamber’s Entrepreneur Award in 2000; and the NC Governor’s Business Council on the Arts and Humanities “Governor’s Business award” in 1999.

 

Pioneering Revitalization

     Besides being multi-faceted, MECA is unique for their early and committed association with the revitalization of “first and second ring neighborhoods,” such as South End. Although he claims no prescience for the current cachet of urban revitalization, Pressley is not shy about admitting that his company pioneered projects that it has now become fashionable (and lucrative) to pursue. For instance, MECA was developing infill and mixed-use projects long before those terms were buzzwords.

     Pressley and MECA have also played a pioneering role in the creative reuse of old buildings, working for a new rehab code that makes such projects feasible, and advocating for the passage of brownfields legislation and for the expansion of special tax districts beyond the center city to spur the development of urban corridors like South End.

     Pressley attributes the current interest in urban revitalization in part to an awareness of environmental issues and a desire to take better care of our resources. Early on, Pressley recognized a need to find new uses for old buildings, so that instead of tearing them down and moving the scrap to “somewhere else,” the materials and workmanship could be recycled. In order to do so, he and MECA became instrumental in helping to promote the need for a new North Carolina Rehabilitation Pilot Code.

     The purpose of new rehab code is to be friendlier to small rehab projects,
support affordable housing efforts, and be more flexible for historic building buildings. Basically, says Pressley, the new rehab code allows flexibility in bringing old buildings up to date. It takes into consideration the point in time when buildings were built and how they were built.

     Some conditions, for example, can’t be changed without making the redevelopment of the building economically unfeasible. Fire stairs built fifty years ago cannot be updated to current standards without completely tearing them down. Under the new rehab code, the stairs might be eligible for modified updating guidelines that make rehabilitation feasible. The guidelines are based on when the building was built and reasonable expectations for updating.

     In addition to Pressley’s advocacy for the new rehab code, MECA was a very early developer of infill projects and the redevelopment of brownfields in Charlotte. Many of their development projects have been mixed-use and live/work spaces conveniently located near amenities and transportation. Such projects are now very much in vogue but were new concepts the 10-plus years ago when MECA began developing Olmsted Park and Atherton Mills.

     Pressley has also played a role in lobbying for extending special tax districts originally created for city centers outward into business corridors like South End. “I by no means take credit for that,” says Pressley. “We worked on it with a lot of other people – city staff, our local delegation, the legislature in Raleigh, groups like North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry – it was a team approach, but we warmed up to it very early on.”

     But Pressley is quick to point out that the trends he has helped prompt and guide in our city are not exclusive to Charlotte. “New Urbanism” and “Sustainable Communities” are buzz words in the media and among real estate professionals nationwide. Live/work space, light rail, urban loft apartments, trendy almost-downtown office spaces are the new style in real estate.

     Pressley attributes the resurgence of interest in older properties to a new awareness of air quality, pollution, and quality of life. People are looking for shorter commutes, a greater sense of community, and a sense of history. The reuse of old buildings appeals to a new environmental sensibility as well as a desire for attractive, historic spaces for living and working. Shorter commutes mean more time at home and less pollution. In addition, many urban corridors are becoming better equipped with convenient public transportation – buses, light rail, trolleys like that in South End – offering even more environmental benefits.

 

Growing into the Future

     MECA’s real estate roots in Charlotte date back more than fifty years ago when Robert H. “Bob” Pressley first purchased a single house and two vacant lots. Bob’s son, Anthony “Tony” Pressley took the reins in 1980 and was later joined by brother Robert M. Pressley (now executive vice president). Now both of Tony’s sons, Robert A. and Andrew W., and three other partners are part of the group.

     Although only 55 years old now, Pressley says that he expects to hand his business on to the third generation of the Pressley family in five years or so. “We have been working for a number of years on a succession plan,” says Pressley. “We have roughly two generations of management here, one on the way out and the other on the way in.” Thanks to advance planning, MECA expects to continue to grow through its changing of the guard, continuing the tradition of supporting urban revitalization.

     But for the present, Pressley has his hands more than full: “Growth seems to be snowballing as a matter of fact, especially in the South End, as design-related companies arrive in South End and begin doing business with one another.” Pressley continues, “We are far enough along that success breeds success. In the next 18 months, we could easily grow as much as we have in the past five years.”

     Likewise, Pressley expects Charlotte to continue to grow and prosper. “I think these are exciting times for developing revitalization projects and spurring entrepreneurial initiatives.”

     Although Pressley foresees many changes for the city, he does not expect MECA to grow beyond the broader boundaries of the Charlotte metropolitan area. “We are not a regional player, not a national player,” he says. “We have become very comfortable with who we are, and in the end we’re a small business.”

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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