Monthly Archives: July 2015

Gaston County’s Well of Creativity

SEABROOK SAYS: Downtown Gastonia is destined to become an exciting place for the artists and those who love the arts.  Promoting the arts should be fantastic for downtown.  Promote the arts for Gaston!                                                                            Know that you know, what will you do?

The clanging bell over the Hive’s front door startled me as a raggedy string bean of a man tumbled in.  I’d been quietly questioning my wisdom in opening a shop on Main Avenue in Gastonia, and my current customer did not appear to be an affirmation to the contrary.  I hesitated then welcomed my visitor.  He said he was an artist and someone had sent him my way. I directed him to the art supplies.  For some odd reason, I also spilled the truth of my fear.  He looked around the Hive and at me and spoke, “My God clearly told me His well of creativity is bottomless. I can work every day until the end of time and never reach the bottom.”  These words brought me tremendous peace and have remained a daily mediation as I think of all the creative people producing on our little patch of the planet.

Gaston County has always been a creative place rooted in the heritage of our Native American forefathers and evolving with the fiber artists and string bands of our textile age.  Today, creative expression remains a vibrant thread running through our community.

Arts on Main, in partnership with the City of Gastonia, houses 26 day studios for working artists. It is home to our thriving fifty-year-old Gaston County Arts Guild, and hosts an impressive gallery, classroom space, and a gift shop that is filled with local artisans’ treasures.  Curt Butler of Butler Studios is luring aspiring painters by the dozens “across the river” for his weekly classes. Curt is rapidly gaining national recognition as an important working artist.  Ryan Karpinsky’s edgy Art Station on South Street exhibits a variety of passionate and talented artists and shares a cool hipster vibe with the music happening next door at Zoe’s coffee shop. Anastasia Boswell’s A Wild Path Studio hosts the popular Wine+Design Parties, Intuitive painting, yoga, and children’s art.  My Hive preserves the stationery tradition begun by Torrence Stationery and has added artisan gifts and creative workshops.  Our classroom instructors come from near and far to share their craft with our community and the folks who travel to Gastonia seeking the Hive’s programming.  There are at least a dozen more artists secreted away in downtown Gastonia studios painting, bookbinding, designing jewelry, filmmaking, photographing, playing music, and sculpting.

Five years ago, Richard Rankin asked if I would help him with a Gastonia focused pre-feasibility study for an organization called Artspace.  Artspace, founded in 1979, is the largest not-for profit real estate developer in the country.  They identify underutilized downtown properties and develop affordable live/work spaces for artists.  The cultural revitalization provided by the creative community creates an economic “tipping point” in municipalities that has been successfully repeated 39 times over around the country.

Following our pre-feasibility study, survey, and extensive analysis, Gastonia qualified to build a forty unit live/work community with gallery and retail space.  The Community Foundation of Gaston County has partnered with Artspace to develop Gastonia Artspace Lofts of the corner of Franklin and South Streets in downtown Gastonia.  Funding comes from philanthropic leaders and public funding sources for affordable housing, economic development, historic preservation and cultural facility development. This is the first P3 development in downtown Gastonia since 2000 and will be the first Artspace in the country to pioneer an onsite community wellness center through an innovative partnership with CaroMont Health.

CaroMont Health has proven a great arts patron in Gaston County.  With the recent construction of the Mount Holly Emergency Department, CaroMont Health worked with community leaders and several area artists to create artwork that reflects Mount Holly’s special character.  Recently, the Rotary Club of Gastonia commissioned area artists to create dynamic lampshades that were auctioned to raise funds to build book stops for Gastonia parks and public spaces.  Other non-profits are crafting similar creative partnerships that have evolved well beyond the old days of simple art auctions.  It has been spectacular to witness the community’s appreciation for this area’s talented artists.

Gaston County enjoys a bottomless well of creativity.  It is a miracle to witness downtown Gastonia waking up as it embraces the soulful artists who make our lives richer and more colorful.  It’s just plain cool that us folks “west of the river” are the ones to recognize and harness the economic powerhouse that a valued, vital creative community can be.

Merryman Cassels

Hive: Paper | Gifts | Workshops


The Seeds of Sustainability

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today.” – Chinese Proverb

If any example shows the importance of planting seeds and reaping the benefits of what we have sown, it is teen pregnancy. The teen pregnancy work conducted in Gaston County over the past five years has been historic. Historically low rates…historic elimination of the disparity between white and African American teen pregnancy rates…a historic funding opportunity that has brought an unmatched level of collaboration and commitment from our community.

It would be easy to sit back and enjoy our success; pat ourselves on the back and say job well done. But our job is nowhere near done.

As with any concluding program or grant, we are always concerned with what will happen next and as the Gaston Youth Connected (GYC)* project comes to a close this fall, it is this I’d like to talk about. I think the best way to break it down is to address three important questions that we have been asking ourselves over the course of this project.

What are we going to do to sustain this momentum?

Good public health programs should be aimed at both improving individual health outcomes and changing the systems and root causes of poor health. Similarly, Gaston Youth Connected was designed to initiate long-term community transformation in the way we deliver teen pregnancy prevention services. In this, it has been incredibly successful. Strengthened relationships between our health care providers, school staff, the faith community, and evidence-based health education programs for youth have laid the foundation for even greater collaborative work in the future. New and improved health centers, like our Teen Wellness Centers, now follow best practices for working with this population. The work to prevent teen pregnancy no longer belongs just to the health department. Teen pregnancy work is now in the hands and hearts of the hundreds of parents, churches, schools, community agencies, young people, and many others who have been involved in this project and their combined passion for this issue will live on.

What will teen pregnancy prevention look like after this grant ends in September?

In a lot of ways, it will look pretty much the same. Our Teen Wellness Centers will stay open and continue providing cutting edge, teen friendly health services to youth. Local community organizations that have received countless trainings and resources from the project will keep serving our youth with a new capacity to address their reproductive health needs in a way they didn’t in the past. DHHS’s teen pregnancy prevention programs will continue to educate local youth about how to protect their health and their futures. We have secured a new State grant to support programs that were initiated with GYC funds and our county continues to prioritize this issue by funding positions and programs that will sustain this work.

What have we learned from this project that we can use to guide our work in other areas?

Numbers don’t lie.  We’ve seen an amazing decline in our teen pregnancy rates.  This work, however, has also taught us a lot about what is needed to get such extraordinary results. Some of the major lessons-learned are:

Our work must start today. We know it can take years to see results like the ones we’ve seen in teen pregnancy. We cannot afford to wait for the right time or right program or the right funding opportunity. Even before GYC, we started making small but significant changes to our clinic structure to improve our teen services and had begun building relationships with other organizations to address teen pregnancy. These actions set the stage for an opportunity like GYC and greatly contributed to its overall success.

Collaboration is key. We cannot address health issues like teen pregnancy in silos. Just as there are many factors that contribute to public health issues, there are many people and organizations that can contribute to solving these problems. We must all come to the table and plan together.

Every penny spent in prevention is worth the investment. Think about the hundreds of teen pregnancies prevented over the past five years and consider the healthcare costs, the social costs, and the economic costs that are avoided by having young women and men able to focus on finishing school rather than supporting a baby. Conservative estimates approximate that in just 3 years we have saved over $6.5 million dollars. These are the types of returns on our investments that pave the way for long-term change and economic stability.

We are so thankful for the Gaston Youth Connected project for helping us plant the seeds for success in this health issue. But while we’re enjoying the shade beneath the trees that have blossomed from these accomplishments, let us continue planting seeds for future progress and future generations.

Chris Dobbins, Director                                                                                                                  Gaston County Department of Health and Human Services

*Gaston Youth Connected is a community-driven project that takes a multi-pronged approach to addressing teen pregnancy. You can learn more about the project at

If you would like to learn more about any of the DHHS programs or public health issues mentioned in this article, please visit our website at or feel free to contact us through

Nonprofit Duplication of Services – The Elephant in the Room

As a society, we tend to think that more of something is better: more food, more jobs, more choices, more apps on your iPhone.  

However, in the nonprofit community that is not always the case. When there are too many nonprofits, the result is often Duplication of Services, Donor Fatigue, and waste.  

That is the situation we face in Gaston County. The problem is two-fold.  

Firstly, the excess number of nonprofits means that many nonprofits provide the same basic services to the same groups of people, leading to an inability of any one or two organizations to grow, expand and innovate; it also leads to waste.  

Secondly, Gaston’s nonprofit sector is expanding at a pace that doesn’t allow donors to keep up with the fundraising demand; that leads to Donor Fatigue.

That doesn’t mean that the nonprofits in Gaston are doing bad work. Every nonprofit that I have worked or met with in Gaston has a big heart for service, and the desire to make Gaston County a better place for the people they serve. And every nonprofit in Gaston County will tell you how their organization is slightly different than others that provide similar services.

There are some cases where having multiple nonprofits in a field makes complete sense. Nonprofits with billable services are a great example, because billable services provide an additional stream of revenue than traditional nonprofit fundraising. Billable revenue is unrestricted, and therefore can offset things like admin and costs for an organization.  

However, there are many cases in which a crowded field can hurt nonprofits in a sector, and ultimately lead to decreased quality of service to people in need.  

Sadly, most nonprofits in Gaston County cannot reach the necessary scale to have the impact they desire. They may grow just big enough sustain operations, or to be able to do some level of good work. But in the end they just struggle to keep their heads above water, and are constantly worrying about whether they can get enough donations or grants each year to keep their doors open and staff paid. The problem is that the more resources our community pours into duplicated services, the less resources we have to build capacity in programs with solid business models and innovative services.  

In business, and the for-profit sector, there is a natural incentive to reduce duplication and waste. Smaller organizations with limited capacity sell to larger companies. The benefit in business to de-duplication is economy of scale. 

For nonprofits, the opposite occurs. Executive Directors don’t want to have to look at their Board and suggest that maybe the long-term solution is to combine resources with another organization. That could mean losing or eliminating jobs or staff positions, or being less free to run an organization the way that they would like to. Nonprofits rarely voluntarily dissolve or merge unless faced with a crisis. The problem is that a nonprofit in crisis becomes toxic, and can harm an organization that absorbs it. Normally the end result is two bad decisions for the community: 

1. Let the nonprofit fail and pick up the pieces afterwards, which is hard on the people who have come to rely on services from that nonprofit. 

2. Rescue the nonprofit through one-time injections of capital, which takes a lot of community resources and most often doesn’t fix the systemic problems that led to the organization’s crisis in the first place.  

What’s the solution to Gaston’s nonprofit problem?  The solution must be a community effort to change our nonprofit landscape.

 Nonprofits, especially those struggling with funding each year, will need to examine their own capacity and services to determine if their organization is in a field with duplication. Then they need to have the tough conversations with other nonprofits to see if combining resources makes sense. 

Donors will have to be more selective when giving, and give to programs that are actively working to reduce duplication in the community. Donors will also have to accept that a healthy nonprofit will have administrative and capacity costs. 

Foundations and funders, like my organization, will have to take the lead and be more selective in the grant process in requiring that programs show how they are not duplicating services, and how they are creating solutions to problems instead of sustaining problems. Gaston’s nonprofits must get into the problem-solving business.  

Ultimately, this community conversation will need to be followed by action. We owe it to the people we serve to have the strongest nonprofit community that we can provide.

Ashley Smith

Director of Development and Marketing

United Way of Gaston County