CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The owner of the venerable Park Road Shopping Center has donated the valuable retail property to three N.C. universities, but the 60-store center will go on doing business as it has since 1956.
Porter Byrum, 91, a retired Charlotte attorney, is giving the largest portion of the shopping center to Wake Forest University, where he went to undergraduate and law school. The rest will be split equally between Queens University of Charlotte and Wingate University, according to a news release sent by the three schools Wednesday evening.
"Education gave me an opportunity in life," Byrum said in the release. "It is my privilege to be able to give that same opportunity to others."
The release didn't say whether the center would eventually be sold, and details of the arrangement are still being worked out. The schools declined to comment on the subject, saying they'd just learned of the gift.
The latest tax value on the shopping center is about $60 million.
Byrum couldn't be reached Wednesday.
The three university presidents were elated by what is sure to be a sizeable gift, but said the shopping center - for now - will continue to operate under Byrum's management.
"We are profoundly grateful for this gift from Mr. Byrum," said Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch.
"His contribution will have a deep impact for good at Wake Forest. Porter's act of benevolence is rare and historic. The students at our three institutions will benefit from his generosity in perpetuity."
The son of a Baptist preacher, Byrum and three brothers followed their father to Wake Forest, all attending tuition-free.
"My daddy never would have been able to put four boys through college, so somebody ought to pay back that debt," he said. "It makes me feel good to do that."
Byrum grew up in Wilmington and Edenton. He graduated from Wake Forest's law school in 1942, then went into the Army and World War II, serving in Europe. After serving in Korea, he moved to Charlotte to start his law practice.
His legal work introduced him to key members of the Charlotte business community and led him to develop real estate. When A.V. Blankenship developed the Park Road Shopping Center, he hired Byrum to help with the financial arrangements, according to a story in Wake Forest Magazine. Byrum bought the center from Blankenship in 1967.
Through the years, he bought land to develop. He's leased 250 acres he owns near Huntersville for Carolina Renaissance Festival.
He built a history of philanthropy, compelled to give back because of the breaks he got.
In recent years, he's donated land in Union County for schools and church. Even into his 90s, he's continued to manage Park Road Shopping Center, where he built a rose garden and often visits the stores and restaurants.
"He is an exceptional role model in terms of both his entrepreneurial spirit and his legacy of philanthropy," said Queens President Pamela Davies. Byrum's gift "will have a tremendous impact on the lives of our students for generations to come."
Byrum has long been connected to Wingate, where he has served as a trustee.
"The way in which he supports his community and mankind sets a high standard for how we all should live our lives," said Wingate President Jerry McGee.
A landmark shopping center
As news of the gift began to spread, some merchants were optimistic that little would change and they'd still be able to operate there.
Park Road has been Brownlee Jewelers' home since 1975. Of the seven Brownlee locations, Park Road has always been the flagship, said owner Harold Rousso.
For as long as Rousso can remember, Byrum has always had plenty of people wanting to lease space.
"It's always continued to thrive," Rousso said. "He's never had to put a lease sign up. He's always waiting for people to come in."
Rousso said he doesn't anticipate any major changes - for now.
"I don't think anything's going to change for at least 10 years," he said. "We'll continue to do business here, we'll always be here."
Diab Rabie, a sales associate at BikeSource, agreed: "I don't think whoever (owns it) is going to try to dismantle the shopping center since it's a historic, well-performing space."
When it opened in November 1956 at Park and Woodlawn roads, Park Road Shopping Center was considered a bold project, set in the suburbs just outside the city limits when most of Charlotte's retail was concentrated in uptown.
It was dubbed a "small city," the city's first open-air shopping center and the largest between Washington and Atlanta. Park Road was a preview of what Charlotte's shopping experience would become.
For that era, the center was luxurious, with 32 air-conditioned stores, roomy parking spaces and an array of shopping choices - all in one location.
It predated enclosed shopping malls like SouthPark and Eastland.
UNC Charlotte historian Dan Morrill said the center has endured because of the neighborhoods around it.
Cheaper lease rates have allowed smaller, local merchants to remain there, Morrill said.
"Customers feel different when they go in a place that is locally owned," he said. "You feel (the merchants) care more."