Community close-up: Gaston County’s active approach
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Gaston County is building its economic base and improving quality of life for its residents.
The town of Dallas is a quick 10-minute drive north on U.S. 321 from downtown Gastonia. It has a 100-acre park with ballfields, an equestrian show ring and fish-filled lakes. It also is home to Gaston County Museum, which recently hosted “The Bible and Gaston County,” an exhibit documenting religion’s role in textile mill history.
Any discussion of that longtime local industry is incomplete without mentioning Loray Mill in Gastonia. It was the South’s largest textile mill under one roof in 1900. While it and the city’s oldest standing mill — Trenton — have been repurposed into housing, other textile operations continue. McAdenville-based Pharr Yarns, whose local mill was the first to be electrified, thanks to a partnership with Thomas Edison, still has manufacturing sites statewide, including its hometown and Kings Mountain.
While Gaston is holding onto its past, it also is looking toward its future. New industries are opening, the local workforce is developing, visitors are arriving and a health care provider is investing. The intertwined efforts are building the county’s economic base and improving quality of life for its residents. “It’s been so much fun these last few years,” says Kristy Ratchford Crisp, economic-development director for the county seat, Gastonia. “What makes Gaston County great is we are growing. And we are adaptable. And we plan for the future.”
Gaston’s biggest industry is manufacturing. Its almost 16,000 jobs employ about 20% of the county’s workforce, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. While that number may be smaller than in years past — 25,000 in 2000 — it doesn’t signal a slowdown. “I don’t think we ever lost manufacturing,” says Steve Nye, Gaston County Economic Development Commission’s marketing director. “It has just evolved over the course of time. It used to be very labor intensive, and now what we see is automation and computerization and machines getting better and more effective. So, they need fewer people, but [the level of skill] the people need to operate these machines has gone up.”
A growing number of Gaston manufacturers have foreign roots. The economic-development group says more than $370 million has been invested in Foreign Direct Investment Projects, which brought more than 1,000 jobs. Gaston was named a Foreign Direct Investment Cluster by Southern Business and Development magazine in 2019. “You can find a great location, competitive prices, all utilities already in an industrial park and a place where people are willing to relocate with a lot of housing options,” says Donny Hicks, Gaston County EDC’s executive director. “You’re close to a bigger city — Charlotte — if you want to commute. So what separates us is the level of effort we put into recruiting those companies. It’s their money and their livelihood they’re putting up, and we generate comfort and support.”
Israel-based Tosaf, which makes color compounds for plastics used in the automotive, construction and textile industries, opened its first U.S. site in Bessemer City in 1986. Belgium-based Dhollandia MFG also chose Bessemer City, investing $26 million to establish a U.S. headquarters there in 2018. “How does a company from Belgium end up in Bessemer City?” Hicks asks. “You look at how many options they have. But we have a lot of well-developed sites. With Tosaf, that was a direct result of recruiting trips. … It came down to between us and Atlanta. In one sense, we don’t have the horsepower of Atlanta. We don’t have Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and we don’t fly the same places, but we can compete, and we can get you anywhere.”
Gaston has been developing Apple Creek Corporate Center in Dallas since the late 1990s. But ground for its first tenant wasn’t broken until last June. GNT USA invested $30 million to build a food-coloring factory and create about 40 jobs on nearly 50 acres. It’s part of a family-owned company that started in Germany in 1978, when it developed technology to extract natural coloring from fruits and vegetables.
Apple Creek’s first phase was nearing completion in December when a company code named Project Duo was close to an announcement. Nye says the park’s remaining 13 sites would fit several industries.
“Projects that are interested include some other food products, some life sciences and some advanced metalworking,” he says. “Those kinds [of companies] will employ no more than 100 or 150, but their capital investment will be a lot greater because, going back to the evolution of the machines that are becoming more automated, they just don’t suit having a high number of people.”
Nine companies have created almost 540 jobs at Dallas-based, 422-acre Gastonia Technology Park, a mile north of Interstate 85. Chemical manufacturer Torrington, Conn.-based Dymax, which serves the automotive, aerospace, defense and medical industries, arrived in December after it announced a $21.5 million investment that would create 59 jobs in April. A $200,000 performance-based grant from One North Carolina Fund helped secure the deal. Röchling Engineering Plastics, part of Germany-based Röchling Group, broke ground on a 75,000-square-foot warehouse expansion at the park about a year ago.
Gaston balances newcomers with longtimers. American & Efird started when waterwheels powered textile mills. Its headquarters remains in Mount Holly, but it’s now part of Charlotte-based Elevate Textiles. “You have to work hard to keep companies like that,” Hicks says. “We get a lot of help from [Raleigh-based Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina] as we try to create the best infrastructure, and they are a huge help with extending our global marketing arm. They help take our message to the world on our behalf.”
Gaston’s future is bright. “We have worked on our utilities system, so we don’t have to spend millions on that,” Hicks says. “We have a good water source tied into Mountain Island [Lake]. We’ve really worked hard on the business side of it. I don’t see anything slowing the growth of the region. We’ve been preparing for that and taking care of opportunities.”
U.S. 321 passes Gaston College, where workforce development is underway. “We work with company representatives to determine the jobs to be created, the skills required for those jobs and the training to support those skills,” says Greg Smith, the college’s vice president of economic workforce development. “A comprehensive training solution and business case is developed. The funding associated with that training plan is allotted to the local community college to be expended on behalf of the company for the specific training outlined in the approved project. The team will then meet at least quarterly to determine the training throughout the duration of the project.”
Gaston College’s workforce development takes several forms. Its Customized Training Program, for example, tailors teachings to specific jobs. Apprenticeship 321 partners with manufacturers in Gaston and Lincoln counties. And a youth apprenticeship program for high school juniors and seniors has been added. “We work with the EDPNC to keep abreast of incoming and expanding companies,” Smith says. “At times we also work with the EDPNC to help recruit companies. Dhollandia is an example where we helped recruit them, met with them and built that relationship.”
In mid-December, Gaston College and Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory launched the Manufacturing & Textile Innovation Network. MTIN develops and promotes a regional workforce by connecting Gaston’s Textile Technology Center, which is based at its Kimbrell Campus in Belmont, with CVCC’s Manufacturing Solutions Center in Conover. Its first students start this fall, working toward a two-year degree in textile technology and choosing specialty tracks including textile design, textile technician or textile manager.
The N.C. General Assembly supports the colleges’ partnership. It sent a $9 million grant to the city of Conover for Manufacturing Solutions Center upgrades and $5.3 million to Gaston County for an incubator and Extrusion Center for Advanced Fibers at the Textile Technology Center. “These centers … [will] be serving the industry in different ways,” says Sam Buff, vice president and general manager of MTIN. “They are very similar in that they service the textile manufacturing industry. The TTC focuses on the front end, where you start with the chemicals that make the fibers that convert into yarn. At the TTC, we primarily weave. We pass the baton to the MSC, because it’s there that instead of weave, they knit. They cut and sew and make a finished garment.”
Buff says MTIN graduates will work in a variety of industries, including furniture, automotive and fiber optics. “There are a lot of companies that would be interested in these folks,” he says. “That [skill] level hasn’t been available in years. The smart companies are looking for young talent.”
Buff credits Gaston College President John Hauser and CVCC President Garrett Hinshaw for sewing up the MTIN deal. “We had cooperation between the two center directors and a shared vision, but we needed that higher level. Dr. Hauser came in about six months ago, and he’s the missing piece,” he says. “He already knew Dr. Hinshaw. In a matter of weeks, they were working on this.”
The seats are ready, and the turf has been placed. Goal posts and soccer nets sit ready for when the baseball park hosts other sports and events. Nicknamed “The Gas House,” it’s the centerpiece of Franklin Urban Sports and Entertainment District — FUSE — on West Franklin Boulevard in Gastonia. City officials envision it attracting residents and tourists with events, shopping, dining and housing. With a construction budget of about $30 million and an expected March completion date, the ballpark should see its first game this spring.
FUSE’s baseball team, the Honey Hunters, will play as one of six Atlantic League teams, with the closest competitor being the High Point Rockers. The team is owned by Brandon Bellamy, CEO of Greenbelt, Md.-based Velocity Cos. “Our team owner is a [real estate] developer, and he is working on additional development pads around the stadium,” says Crisp, the city’s economic-development director. “He wants to do some more multifamily [housing] that will look down on the playing field, and a potential hotel and offices. With a lot of that, because the industries have been impacted by COVID, we need to see how the economy recovers before we start looking at more hotels. But a 120-room hotel with rooms that look down onto the field would be super cool.”
Other developments are happening nearby. Durham-based Durty Bull Brewing is investing $2 million in a 5,000-square-foot taproom, brewery and restaurant that is expected to open this spring. Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based developer Lansing Melbourne Group is investing $24.4 million in Trenton Mill Lofts, where 89 loft apartments will feature 130 years of history and modern conveniences. And construction of about 100 apartments at Center City Crossing, developed by Fort Mill, S.C.-based Kuester Commercial on West Main Avenue, should begin in March.
Gaston County visitors spent more than $291 million in 2019, 5.6% more than the year before, according to Visit North Carolina, EDPNC’s tourism-development arm. That supported about 2,000 jobs with a $49 million payroll. They come for many reasons, including the Ridgeline Craft Beverage Trail, which connects brewers and distillers in Gaston and Cleveland counties, kayaking on the South Fork and Catawba rivers, and the renowned Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. It won’t be long until FUSE and the $6 million aquatics center, which is expected to break ground this month in a portion of Eastridge Mall’s parking lot, join that list. And their lodging choices will include two new hotels.
The Fairfield Inn & Suites Charlotte Belmont, not far from where I-85 crosses the Catawba River, opened last July with 91 guest rooms, a fitness center, meeting rooms and an outdoor pool. “The Belmont-Mount Holly area is growing so fast, and we wanted to be a part of it,” says General Manager Jay Brown. “We are excited to see the future development of more businesses in the area. [It] has so many wonderful events and attractions throughout the year.”
The other hotel — Home2 Suites in Belmont, located on the other side of I-85 — has ties to Gaston’s textile history. Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based Strands Hospitality Services has managed more than 300 hotels, including Holiday Inns, Hampton Inns and Wingate hotels, mostly in the Southeast, in its 50 years. Its president is John Pharr, whose second cousin is Bill Carstarphen. His grandfather started Pharr Yarns in 1939. The family business sold its textile interests last year, focusing on real estate and hotels instead.
The family’s long-running relationship with Belmont Abbey College led to a Hampton Inn in 2009. “Belmont Abbey and Pharr Yarns did a 50-50 joint venture … and the college is the top customer with that hotel,” Pharr says. “So, the new hotel is an outgrowth of the old hotel. The group and one other investor went back to the Abbey and said, ‘How about another hotel on your property near the Mount Holly exit?’”
The pet-friendly Home2 Suites, which opened in January, has a fitness center, pool and free breakfast. “Sports tourism has increased there a lot,” Pharr says. “We’ve had experience with that in Rock Hill and in Myrtle Beach. Sports programs generate a lot of business.”
Belmont Abbey also recently signed a lease with Gastonia-based CaroMont Health, which has 4,300 employees across five counties, so construction of CaroMont Regional Medical Center-Belmont can begin this spring. It will have 66 beds, an emergency department, operating rooms, a labor-and-delivery unit and imaging services — MRI, CT, nuclear medicine and ultrasound. Medical offices and outpatient services also are planned.
The Belmont hospital is expected to open in 2023, when CaroMont also plans to open a four-floor critical-care tower adjacent to its regional medical center in Gastonia. “At CaroMont Health, we have a phrase we often use to describe our approach to projects large and small — clinically led, professionally managed,” says Ashley Long, CaroMont vice president and chief nursing officer. “The process to evaluate, plan and develop the future critical-care tower is a true testament to that approach.” Both projects are part of a more than $350 million investment countywide.
Each floor of the 146,000-square-foot tower will have centralized nursing stations that are within view of 26 rooms, each offering ICU-level care. “From the innovative floor plan, which will allow our nurses to do their jobs more efficiently, to the larger rooms that balance technology and comfort, this project will make a difference for each of the thousands of patients who depend on us to help change and save their lives,” Long says.
The CaroMont system will work with Belmont Abbey’s health-science programs, offering students clinical rotations. And workforce-development partnerships with local colleges will allow nurses to train in the tower. “While critical care is a relatively small specialty in the medical community, it is a complex discipline that requires significant resources to care for these patients,” says Heath High, CaroMont’s medical director for critical care and the tower endeavor’s physician lead. “This project will position the care team to continue to provide highly advanced medical therapy and create a healing environment for patients and loved ones during a stressful and difficult time in their lives.”
From an economic-development perspective, Gastonia’s Crisp says CaroMont’s expansions are a big deal. “They’re our largest employer, and their contributions to our overall economic vitality are immeasurable,” she says. “And their place in Belmont helps secure their place regionally.”
— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.