On April 27, 2014, The Charlotte Observer ran an article showing the growth of Mecklenburg and surrounding counties during the last 3 years. Mecklenburg grew 7.3%, Union 5.2%, Cabarrus 4.8%, York 5.5% and Gaston 1.6%. I asked “How could that be”? Gaston County is the most beautiful county in the Piedmont, with rivers, lakes and mountains. It is located on three major highways and is convenient to Charlotte and the airport. It has good schools, abundant water and sewer capacity, available buildings and an able work force. Gastonia has been an all-American city three times. I set out to try to determine why Gaston County is doing so poorly. I quickly found out that most of the growth that Gaston County has experienced is limited to Belmont, Cramerton and Mount Holly, with areas west of those towns actually losing population.
Here is what else I found:
1. Gaston County has a reputation throughout Metrolina as a rough place. For many years, Gaston County was infamous for its violent crime and that image still prevails in Mecklenburg County. I have been with citizens and realtors from Mecklenburg County and when they discover I am from Gastonia, you can detect a slight snicker.
2. Gaston County has failed to latch onto the Mecklenburg and Charlotte bandwagon. When textiles were king in Gaston County, we could afford to be independent, but with the demise of the textile industry, our future is tied to the future of Charlotte. Other towns around Charlotte have recognized this and have taken off. Just observe the growth in Rock Hill, Mooresville, Huntersville, Monroe, Mint Hill, etc.
3. Gaston County, and especially Gastonia, have very onerous building restrictions, overzealous inspections and high and discriminatory fees against developers. I have heard many developers say they will never do business in Gastonia again.
4. Our government leaders, on the local and state level, have failed to grasp some major growth opportunities that have been available to Gaston County, e.g. The Garden State Parkway, major corporate offices (Parkdale and others) in downtown Gastonia, and the Harris Teeter shopping area to name a few. I realize that controversy accompanies some of these projects but most progress brings controversy.
What can we do in the future to assure that Gaston County gets its share of the growth? We have 2 ways to proceed – attract new jobs in the manufacturing sector and be a major residential area for Charlotte workers.
I suggest the following:
1. Our leaders, government and business, should meet and communicate regularly with Charlotte leaders and realtors. Let them know the qualities of Gaston County, dispel any adverse impressions and urge them to invest in the future of Gaston County. A promotional film, if one does not exist, would be helpful. I know it is difficult to get Charlotte realtors to consider Gastonia, since a $250,000 house in Gastonia would sell for $400,000 in Charlotte (a recent observer article put the average home price in Gaston County at $147,134 with Mecklenburg being $261,414), but Gaston County offers a more affordable and relaxing way of life than Charlotte. We just have to convince the realtors.
2. Without sacrificing quality, abolish all harsh and unnecessary regulations, fees and inspections. Develop a reputation as pro-growth and publicize to businesses and developers that Gaston County wants you and is open to business.
3. Seize or at least seriously consider every opportunity for growth, realizing that most decisions carry some controversy. We have made some positive investments in preserving downtown Gastonia and the Firestone Mill, but these expenditures have not led to job growth. Future expenditures should have the primary purpose of promoting growth, i.e. water and sewer extension down Union Road and New Hope Road and working to get the P & N commuter train to Charlotte.
4. Develop a coordinated plan through the economic development commission, the Chamber of Commerce and the newly formed Gaston Development Corporation to sell Gaston County as the place to live and do business. Since textiles are returning to the U.S., Gaston County should compete for this market. We still have a trained work force and many empty mills. We also have an advantage in recruiting metal and plastic fabrication. Tax incentives, through our state and municipal governments, are also necessary to seriously compete.
In the last few months, I have noticed a renewed awareness of this problem among our elected officials and community leaders. Now is the time for all of us to show the world what a great place Gaston County is.
Gray, Layton, Kersh, Solomon, Furr, and Smith