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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Community close up: Major healthcare, international businesses and downtown revitalizations help brighten Gaston County’s future

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Rustic textile mills, the foundation of Gaston County’s economy a century ago, remain part of its support system as downtown revitalizations, major healthcare investments and international manufacturing build this Piedmont county of a quarter-million residents.

In the county seat of Gastonia, Trenton Cotton Mills, established in 1893, and the Loray Mill complex, have been repurposed into lofts and apartments near downtown. Construction is scheduled to begin in first-quarter 2024 on Franklin Yards, a $50 million project to create 250 residential units and 7,000-square-feet of commercial space in the former YMCA in Gastonia’s Franklin Urban Sports and Entertainment (FUSE) District. The former Choice USA Beverage building on East Franklin Boulevard, known as the Coke building, will be a loft complex called The Dillinger, with another building re-created into a retail/restaurant/classic car display called Hangar 618, in FUSE.

A mural in downtown Belmont, Firehawk Brewpub in Mount Holly, Moonlight on Main exhibition in Belmont and amenity area for the 55-year-old and older community Imagery on Mountain Island Lake, help show the diversity of Gaston County.

Nearby in Mount Holly, the county’s second-largest municipality, the Mount Holly
Cotton Mill built in 1875 is being transformed into Muddy River Distillery, to open this spring. And new owners of Woodlawn Mill, a former textile mill, plan to convert it to apartments and commercial.

“I remember as a young child coming downtown and now, quite frankly, you can’t find a parking spot anymore,” says Gastonia native Mike Sumner, owner of Sumner Group Marketing & Branding, which operates in the historic Love Building in downtown Gastonia. His company has been in business 36 years. “You have to get here early if you want to park. Downtown has been forgotten for so many years, but now it’s changing.” 

That change is drifting in from the east, as growth in Mecklenburg County crosses the Catawba River into Gaston. Belmont and Mount Holly, which border the river, are exploring land-use plans to accommodate increased residential and commercial activity while remaining nature-friendly, with parks and walkways.

“We here in Gastonia are winning by default,” says Sam Robinson, a Sumner Group staffer. “Charlotte has run over, Belmont has run over and we have a progressive group of people in Gastonia who really want to make things happen. There’s a huge demand for apartments, and you can be in Charlotte in 35 minutes.”

Adds Kristy Crisp, director of economic development for the city of Gastonia: “If you’d asked me five years ago, I’d never have envisioned where we are today. We are growing at such a fast rate. It’s like the chicken and the egg – we’re building our residential, so we need shopping, but the shops need residential density to be successful. We definitely have a lot of people downtown now, so in five years from now I see a strong residential corridor, a thriving FUSE District, downtown hotels, a lot of activity and continued growth.”

Momentum in Gastonia hit a speed bump in late November when the Gastonia Honey Hunters baseball team, which played in FUSE’s CaroMont Health Park, were kicked out of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, potentially leaving the 2,000-seat stadium without a tenant. Various lawsuits are ongoing with the league and city of Gastonia, though Atlantic League president Rick White says “the Atlantic league intends to field a team in Gastonia in 2024.”

The $26.2 million stadium opened in May 2021, fueling a string of investments in downtown, including repurposing former mill buildings into residences. 

“The support of the business community will be there for a new team,” Sumner says, “no question in my mind. Gastonia will support a major league team. If somebody makes a commitment to Gastonia baseball, the community will in turn make a commitment back to that team. People here are family-oriented, and Gastonia will do everything to make it work if you put in the right program.”

“Our plan is definitely to play baseball in 2024, that’s the goal,” Crisp says. “We want to make sure CaroMont Health Park is successful.”

Demographically, Sumner says, the city of 81,200 has a downtown a mere four stoplights long. “Just today,” he said in mid-November, “we were out taking a walk and within those four blocks we saw 14 building projects.”

An old theater has become Webb Custom Kitchen, and a former law building is transformed into the Esquire Hotel. Across the street, a $20 million apartment project on West Main Avenue  – Center City Crossings – will begin leasing in January.

The Franklin Yards project will include intersection improvements at Franklin and Trenton streets, with Trenton “being straightened up,” Crisp says. “We’re making it more pedestrian friendly, putting in new signals and pedestrian markers and making it very much a sense of placemaking, of being part of FUSE.”

“We have a small downtown. You can walk from one end to the other in five minutes,” Sumner says. “I tell people all the time, there’s a lot of development over in Belmont, but people judge an area by its downtown. We’re trying to connect to Charlotte on one side (of the county), and the downtown had been forgotten. Now it’s changing. The rents are going up and that’s good, because we need to have people who are committed and are bringing in the types of businesses the people in the apartments need. Just about every business except the banks is a local business.”

Away from downtown, many businesses are not local. 

“We have a large manufacturing base; we are a manufacturing county, and healthcare is right behind it,” says Alisha Summey, assistant director of the Gaston County Economic Development Commission. “Manufacturing creates the largest amount of wages
and employment.

Manufacturing employs 15,984, according to the EDC, followed by healthcare and social assistance at 12,555. Germany leads the foreign-based list of those doing business in Gaston County with 11 companies. South Africa is second with three. Also in the group: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Spain, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Turkey.

The Congress of New Urbanism took a tour of historic Mount Holly Cotton Mill (circa 1875), which is being renovated by Muddy River Distillery.

“Gaston is so attractive for foreign companies. They’re drawn here. And when we have prospects, such as if they’re a German company, they ask to interview other German companies,” Summey says. “There’s also a lot of workforce initiatives. We partner with the Gaston Workforce Development Board, and both campuses of Gaston College, and it makes doing business a little easier.”

Sumner’s building on West Main Avenue is part of the countywide uplift.

“We took an over-120-year-old building and renovated it,” he says. “It’s a dramatic
change, here, in what had been a ghost town for several years. It’s been an
amazing transformation.”

OTHER DOWNTOWNS
Growth around Belmont Abbey College is trickling into the city of Belmont, which is updating its Comprehensive Land Use Plan adopted in 2007 and initially revised
in 2018. The plan is divided into
six sections detailing initiatives in housing, recreation, commercial development, parks, industries and mixed-use possibilities.

“This update is expected to build on the existing plan while also responding to evolving priorities within our community as we grow and develop,” says Tiffany Faro, the director of planning and zoning. “Recently, Belmont, which borders the Catawba River, has updated our Pedestrian Plan and begun exploring opportunities to introduce new housing forms within our community. Additionally, we will be developing a multimodal network plan simultaneously with our Land Use Plan to stitch land use and transportation planning efforts together.”

Belmont has opened a CityRec Center, its only public indoor Parks and Recreation facility, across from the Kevin Loftin Riverfront Park and skateboard park, says Jamie Campbell, the city’s public information officer.“This is the beginning of the development in east Belmont, the river side,” Campbell says.“We also have recently partnered with building and business owners in east Belmont to remove an old metal slip cover from the outside of the old buildings there. It has given a new life into that area.” 

Also along the Catawba, two proposals are in the works – a senior living community and a development called the Crescent Project that would have 24,550-square-feet of commercial use, 63 townhomes, 230 multi-family flats and four live/work units, with other amenities. A series of community meetings to discuss the Crescent Project begin in January.

The future Abbey Creek Greenway is a 1.2-mile trail from the river, along the creek south of Wilkinson Boulevard with connections planned to Kevin Loftin Park and the recreation center. “The greenway also will run behind Gaston College Kimbrell Campus, which will open its new Fiber Innovation Center in early 2024,” Campbell says.

The center at the college’s Belmont campus, will be 39,000-square-feet with an extrusion lab, spun yarn and filament processing areas, and incubation space for entrepreneurs, according to its website. It calls the center “a world-class facility focused on the future of the textile industry.”

Up the river, Mount Holly leaders have compiled Plan Mount Holly, a two-part roadmap divided into a land plan to align future growth with various elements of the community, and a park plan, to develop parks, recreation and open spaces. Population grew 29% from 2010 to 2020, with 4,407 new residents, says city Planning Director Greg Beal.

Mount Holly’s River Hawk Greenway part of the Carolina Thread Trail.

“Going all the way back to January 2003, the city held a Vision Process, where more than 150 citizens and supporters came together in a series of charrettes and recommended that the city and its partners focus on five needed projects,” Beal says. Those were: a great main street, greenways and green connections, a downtown connector trail (Linear Park, constructed from a $5 million bond referendum), a restaurant with docks and an event space and museum. “All of these goals were either accomplished and/or are being built upon, such as the entire River Hawk Greenway System, a part of the Carolina Thread Trail.” 

A Strategic Vision Plan was adopted in 2008, and in January 2019, following several
public meetings and workshops, Mount Holly formed its Strategic Vision Plan Update
and Implementation Strategy and Action Plan. “It guides a lot of land use decision-making for the city and is commonly referenced by council in various meetings and during the annual budget process,” Beal says. “There are 111 specific recommendations in the Action Plan, and as of this date (early December), 36 goals have been completed
with 22 more in progress.”

The city reworked its entryway off Interstate 85 with architectural designs. “Those steps have surely paid off, as the South Gateway is seeing several major projects, including the Mount Holly Medical Center, with OrthoCarolina and Carolina Neurosurgery and Spine Associates occupying the first two buildings in summer 2024,” Beal says. 

Along the water, the city is expanding its River Hawk Greenway, with Dutchmans Creek Pedestrian Bridge opening in 2025. And, Beal says, “The city is focused on establishing a mixed-use site by utilizing a request for proposal process for the Veterans Park Expansion Project, which will create more housing, commercial space and a downtown park
for all to enjoy.”

Aerial view of Kevin Loftin Riverfront Park in Belmont, which is along the Catawba River.

MANUFACTURING
Riverbend Township in northeastern Gaston County includes parts of Mount Holly, Stanley, Spencer Mountain, Mountain Island and Lucia. It’s adding Riverbend Preserve, a project with about 450 homes and 2.5 million square-feet of industrial space along N.C. 16 at the Gaston-Lincoln County line. The Gaston County Board of Commissioners approved a development agreement in October. Charlotte-based Childress Klein is leadingthe industrial portion. 

Apple Creek Corporate Center in Dallas is home to GNT USA, Knoll America, Rankin USA and Premix and has five pre-graded, shovel-ready sites. “We have some announcements in the works,” Summey says. “We have a food manufacturer looking to purchase in Apple Creek, a fiber-optics manufacturer looking at Belmont and a robotic equipment manufacturer at a new industrial building off Mount Olive Church Road.”

Last June, the city of Mount Holly and Gaston County EDC announced that Gold Bond Building Products, an affiliate of National Gypsum, will invest $90 million in expanding its Mount Holly facility, a move that will retain 100 existing jobs and add 11. Organizers note that more than half of the company’s employees live in Mount Holly or nearby.

HEALTHCARE & EDUCATION
CaroMont Health, Atrium and Novant are represented in county healthcare, with CaroMont the main player with 4,500 employees in 60 locations across the region. Last May, it opened its South Tower at its CaroMont Regional Medical Center on Court Drive in Gastonia, part of its $350 million commitment to invest in area locations. The first three floors of
the 176,811-square-foot tower contain the Intermediate Medical Care Unit, Medical Surgical ICU and Cardiovascular ICU.

“Utilization of the floor reserved for future development will be guided by clinical needs
of the hospital and the future allocations of licensed acute beds,” says a CaroMont
Health spokesperson.

CaroMont Regional Medical Center – Mount Holly, which opened in January 2015, is a 38,000-square-foot free-standing emergency department with six rapid-evaluation rooms, 10 exam rooms and stations for CT scans, X-ray, ultrasound, resuscitation and labs.

CaroMont Regional Medical Center-Belmont is under construction on land leased to the hospital by monks of the Southern Benedictine Society. Belmont Abbey College, which the monks support, was recognized in a release that states, “The college’s Master of Healthcare Administration online program earned top honors for its overall quality, affordability and commitment to student success.”

The 66-bed hospital that will anchor the Belmont medical campus, will include a 16-room emergency department, maternity unit with labor and delivery, surgical suite with two operating rooms, an OB/GYN suite and endoscopy suite, comprehensive imaging and diagnostic services, and a four-floor medical office building.

In January 2023, the Abbey marked its first semester of its new RN-BSN and Master of Science in Nursing Leadership programs with nine CaroMont employees receiving
full tuition. 

In October, Belmont Abbey received $9 million from the North Carolina General Assembly toward construction of a performing arts center to “provide opportunities for theater and stage productions, as well as dance competitions, art exhibits and conferences, making Gaston County a desired destination for large, high-quality events and performances,” according to the college.

When Gaston College received its $60 million allocation in November to construct a building to increase its health sciences program with a Health Science Education and Simulation Center, President John Hauser said it would be “the only regional facility open to industry that is capable of providing training opportunities to existing healthcare professionals as well as students through a full range of in-house simulation capabilities.” 

The construction project is an expansion of the David Belk Cannon Health Institute on the Dallas campus. A spokesperson for the college says there isn’t a set timeline, but “Gaston College has received approval from the N.C. State Construction Office to release a Request for Proposals to select an architect.”

“The partnership with Gaston College has resulted in expansion of clinical simulation, the addition of new health care programs and development and funding of scholarship programs for students and healthcare professionals,” the CaroMont spokesperson says. “Of note, the North Carolina Community College System and the State Board of Community Colleges awarded Gaston College and CaroMont Health the Distinguished Partners in Excellence Award for 2023. This award ‘recognizes an exemplary employer, business or industry group that has demonstrated decisive involvement and firm commitment to the professional development of its employees and/or to the development of North Carolina’s workforce through its partnership efforts with one or more of the 58 community colleges in the North Carolina Community College System.’” 

According to a release, Gaston College’s existing healthcare program offerings include five nationally accredited programs, 13 health and human services programs, 13 university transfer partners, a health academy at East Gaston High School, and Gaston Early College of Medical Sciences through Gaston County Schools. Through the new Health Science Education and Simulation Center, the college’s programs will grow to include several new programs, new national accreditations, and new apprenticeship pathways.

“Investing in education is a priority for CaroMont Health,” the spokesperson says. “Long-standing partnerships with Gaston County Schools, Gaston College, and Belmont Abbey College have led to the development of healthcare training programs, experiential learning opportunities and a robust workforce pipeline.”

RECREATION
A groundbreaking ceremony was held in September for Gaston Aquatics’ $11million, 34,000-square-foot aquatics center on Carpenter Street in Dallas. The facility is scheduled to open in 2024 with a 50-meter pool, warm water pool, water therapy and safety instruction classes, a weight room, hospitality suite and seating for 1,200. The pool will be home base for the Gaston Gators swim team.

Gaston County is comprised of Belmont, Mount Holly, Cramerton, McAdenville, Lowell, Gastonia, Dallas, Stanley, Ranlo, High Shoals, Cherryville, Kings Mountain and Bessemer City, intermingled with the natural beauty of Crowders Mountain State Park, Spencer Mountain and Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden; vintage places like the Hoyle Historic Homestead, built in 1760 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places; and McAdenville, Christmas Town USA, which lights up every December and attracts hundreds of thousands to drive or stroll through the tiny mill village.

Visitor spending in Gaston increased from $241.6 million in 2015 to $291.9 million in 2019, making it No. 17 among North Carolina counties. County statistics show tourism employment in 2019 at 2,000 with a payroll of $49.14 million and $21.27 million collected in state and local taxes. 

According to the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, from mid-2021 to mid-2022 about 113 people moved to the Charlotte region every day, with the “outer rings” of surrounding counties seeing spillover growth.

“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves (with downtown residential and commercial construction) because we’ve become part of the Charlotte region, and Charlotte is such
a healthy market,” Crisp says. “We saw that when Trenton opened, when Loray opened
and there’s a wait list, so we see the demand for housing. There are a lot of amenities to living here. We have FUSE, a cheaper cost of living and the downtown restaurants and bars, and a new social district, a pedestrian–friendly area on the Main Street corridor
near the breweries.”

“The days of just lawyers and bankers and city workers, all that is changing,” Sumner says. “You can see and do a lot.”

“I want people to know they can come visit Gastonia,” Crisp says. “Visit Tony’s Ice Cream, go to a ballgame, visit our social district. We’re really excited to be able to offer that friendly atmosphere.”

— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.

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