Charlotte arena getting some neighbors at last

CHARLOTTE -- Nearly two years after Charlotte Bobcats Arena debuted, the retail space along Trade Street is finally filling up. A Dunkin' Donuts opened last month, and a Bellacino's Pizza & Grinders restaurant will begin serving in August, city officials confirmed.

A third dining chain with burger-and-fries fare has signed a letter of intent to open a franchise location in the remaining space, said J.R. Steigerwald, asset manager for the city of Charlotte.

All rent goes to the city, which owns the arena and plans to devote the funds to the building's operating budget.

It has been a long wait to find tenants in what is a booming part of uptown; the arena is half a block from the $275 million mixed-use Epicentre development and across the street from the busy uptown transit center. Then-Assistant City Manager Curt Walton said in October 2005 that vendors could be announced within a week, yet the 8,000-square-foot space was empty until last month.

"It's fair to say that progress was slower than expected," Steigerwald said. "Nothing happens as fast as you like."

At various points over the past two years, Matt's Chicago Dog and Red's BBQ made commitments to the location, but both fell through, Steigerwald said. Many potential tenants weren't interested in the space because of the lack of on-site parking, a drive-through window or even a pick-up lane for to-go orders.

"It's doesn't fit into a nice square box," he said. "But we've been able to get what I consider to be a good mixture of food varieties that will be there at a very affordable cost point."

Dunkin' Donuts signed on for 1,910 square feet at $25 per square foot per year, and Bellacino's took 4,131 square feet at $20.50, the latter with incremental increases over the course of the contact. Both are 10-year deals with a pair of five-year renewal options.

According to the most recent report available from Karnes Research, the average retail rent per square foot in uptown is $24.86. John Gregory Jr., the Bellacino's franchisee, said he looked into leasing at the transit center four years ago, and the arena space is a "great deal."

"The transit system wanted the same amount per square footage rent as I'm paying across the street four years later," he added.

Gregory said he will sink $280,000 into renovations to accommodate a full bar and private party area. The city is paying between a quarter and a third of the cost to finish off the space for all three tenants, Steigerwald said.

Despite the prime location and brand-new facility, sales have been slow at Dunkin' Donuts, said franchisee Patrick Verdi. The Massachusetts-based chain had been interested in the arena site for years; the delay was in finding someone who was willing to open multiple shops within the Interstate 277 loop.