Sep 11, 2023

Businesses along Sugar Creek unite to curb crime in one of the city’s worst hot spots

Ronald Sturdivant tried to calm his nerves before going into work at Samoha African Cuisine on a recent afternoon. He had heard about shootings along Sugar Creek Road, but he had never seen one until just a few minutes ago.

"I'm coming down the street, right there in front of the store, and all of a sudden, it sounds like 20 rounds went off. I'm like, ‘What in the world is going on?’" Sturdivant said.

A man had left his car running and went into a store. When someone tried to drive away in his car, the man shot at the car. No one was hurt, but it scared people working in the strip mall, including Fatima Turay. She owns a hair braiding store next door.

The door is always locked, Turay said, to keep her clients and braiders safe. Customers buzz to be let in. Still, she loves the location on Sugar Creek between North Tryon Street and Interstate 85, as well as her customers and fellow business owners here.

"This is like a family now. So we just have to ask God to protect us here." Turay said.

Shootings are a concern along this stretch of West Sugar Creek Road, as also drug dealing, loitering and prostitution. There are often more than 1,000 calls for service each month in this area of northeast Charlotte, nearly twice the number of the city's next-highest hot spot for crime.

Some businesses here are uniting to send a message: West Sugar Creek is a welcoming place, except for those looking for trouble. The Sugar Creek Business Association was formed this year to get the ear of elected officials and help businesses take a stand against crime. It was the idea of Janette Kinard.

"We're going to bond together and show that something different is going to happen in this corridor," Kinard said. "I've been here nine years and it's gotten better, worse, better, worse. And so it's time to change it."

Kinard fills needs wherever she sees them. Her nonprofit Champion House of Care works with teens and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She also helps families living in the neighboring motels.

But she didn't think she had enough support to tackle crime, until two years ago when she met Ron Zarek, the new owner of the McDonald's on the corner of Reagan Drive. He told her he was ready to start working on it.

"And I was like, ‘All right, let's do this,’" Kinard said.

The city helped the association get set up this year. The group's most recent meeting drew about 30 members, residents, city employees and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers officers to a McDonald's last month.

The members include a mix of businesses, nonprofits and churches. They’ll soon number 17. Zarek is the group's president. He told them the goal is to make people feel safe and keep troublemakers away.

"If you're here and you're up to no good, maybe you need to be a little bit less comfortable about doing bad things in our community," Zarek said. "We're not out there with guns or anything else, but we are saying, ‘not in our area.’"

That takes vigilance. The Brookwood Inn hired a security guard to walk the property. McDonald's employees call the police or confront loiterers who won't leave. Tenants in the University South Business Center convinced their landlord to put up an 8-foot fence. And when there's trouble, businesses call to warn each other.

Veronica Washington, with Northside Baptist Church, told the group that members need to be active.

"It's a lot of work and it's a very heavy lift. So we're not looking for members to kind of ride along," Washington said.

Police have tried to coordinate businesses in the area. Officers created a spreadsheet of people businesses had banned, so owners could share and add to it. But that didn't take. CMPD Community Coordinator Jason Ellis said he sees motels and convenience stores that aren't consistent with their response.

"They would ban the person from the hotel, but then we would see them on camera letting them rent the room the next day or next week," Ellis said.

He told the group that puts officers "in a really tough spot."

The city bought a motel here that attracted a lot of crime, to redevelop it as part of a larger revitalization plan through its Corridors of Opportunity initiative.

CMPD Det. Shawn Steward said police are just one piece of the puzzle, and CMPD is shorthanded. Business owners, Steward said, can make a big impact, but it comes down to how many the association can enlist. Because if one business is lax, he said, it would be "detrimental for everyone."

"All the businesses have to come together, not just 10 or 14 or 20," Steward said.

After the meeting, Kinard and another board member said they hope they’re able to get the owners of the Shell gas station and 7-Eleven on board. Shootings cluster around the Reagan Drive intersection, and loiterers congregate at those businesses. The 7-Eleven blares opera to try to deter them. Kinard says she's encouraged by recent changes at the Shell station.

"He's redone his fence now. So he's trying to change just a little bit for us. We do have cameras," Kinard said of the Shell station's owner.

"Right, I guess he's starting to see a difference," Erica Corbin, the head of Amara Wellness Services, replied.

"Right and saying, ‘Hey, I've got to get on board with this difference,’" Kinard said.

The city recently installed cameras that feed into CMPD's crime center. More than a dozen businesses along Sugar Creek have them. The Shell has four.

A black, metal fence runs along the side of the Shell station where several people are sitting. It's been dented to create a big gap people can escape through when the police come.

"They just broke it a couple of days ago. This is the fifth fence in a couple of years," said Imran Farzand, who owns Shell station.

He's run the station for 15 years. He bought it in 2016 when the chain Raceway wanted to sell it, and turned it into a Shell.

"Only two things can really help this corridor. If we have a full strength of officers at least, who can give priority to the businesses so they can give a better response. And we need training for officers," Farzand said.

Farzand has been badly beaten with broken teeth and ribs. He says he used to call the police more, but he gave up. He's learned to fight when someone gives him a hard time sometimes with his fists.

"First time, I was protecting. Second time, I grabbed a hand. Third time, I know that he's going to beat me. I start beating, too," Farzand said.

Several times, he said, he's had to flash the .45 caliber handgun he keeps in a holster under his shirt.

Farzand is open to joining an association but wonders how businesses can make the area safer when they struggle so much with their own security. The group's organizers understand they can only do so much, but hope taking on crime together packs a greater punch than going it alone.

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