Tag Archives: Partnerships

Tourism: Growing Gaston County’s (No Longer) Sleeping Giant

SEABROOK SAYS: Let’s hear it for Michael Applegate!  Mike, our new Director of Travel and Tourism, brings refreshing new energy to Gaston County.  Read and be reminded of all the good things to do and see right here at home. NOW THAT YOU KNOW, WHAT WILL YOU DO?

Over the past two decades, Gaston County’s travel & tourism industry has grown by leaps and bounds. Remarkably, even with this amazing surge, our best is yet to come.

What We Do and Who We Do It For

As Director of our County’s destination marketing organization, I strive to stay focused on four major areas that best serve our local residents, municipal stakeholders, industry partners and the traveling public:

  1. Marketing and Selling to the Visitor – this includes targeting the right group and individual markets as well as both leisure and business & conference related audiences.
  2. Informing, Educating and Advising the Visitor – we publish a visitor’s guide, maintain a website, run social media campaigns, and distribute partner materials to familiarize travelers with the vast array of experiences our County offers.
  3. Delivering Services to the Visitor- acting as a liaison between the visitor and our local hotel, attraction, restaurant, and retail partners, we represent the collective interests of the industry by making recommendations that meet our customers’ needs and produce a satisfying stay.
  4. Developing the Destination – working with local governments, county departments, industry partners and community leaders we support a strategic, well-planned vision for the future growth and development of our destination.

These focus areas come to life through our strategic plan, the main pillars of which are: Sales & Marketing– we are committed to marketing the destination in creative and unique ways to grow awareness, visitation and tourism spending; Partnership– we embrace our role in representing the collective interests of our stakeholders and we value their investment in our destination; Service– we are dedicated to exceeding the expectations of our visitors, our clients, and our partners to foster positive experiences and ongoing loyalty; and Destination Management– we will advocate for the development of events and venues within our County that positively impact our tourism industry and solidify our brand position.

Tourism is Economic Development

Similar to our County’s Economic Development Commission, our goal in Travel & Tourism is to stimulate local investment. However, the investment we pursue comes in the form of visitor spending.  Any time a person travels to Gaston County from 50 miles or more away, either for the day or overnight, the dollars they spend here support our local economy. Last year, visitors to Gaston County collectively spent a whopping $234 million dollars.  These direct expenditures helped to employ over 1,800 individuals working in our local tourism industry. Further, spending by travelers visiting our area generated $12.9 million in state tax receipts and $3.8 million in local tax receipts.  The state and local tax collections resulting from visitor spending represent a tax savings per resident of $79.46.

In hitting the $234 million mark last year, annual visitor spending in Gaston County has now grown over $71 million in the past ten years (up from $163 million in 2005). In the past twenty years, annual visitor spending in Gaston County has grown over $132 million (up from $102 million in 1995).                Among North Carolina’s 100 Counties, Gaston County ranks seventeenth in annual visitor expenditures.

Branding a Key to Destination Management

In order to best deliver upon our organizational mission – to effectively market and promote travel to Gaston County and to strategically manage the development of future tourism assets in order to maximize overnight stays, visitor spending, client satisfaction and local partner engagement – we must have a compelling message about the experience we offer visitors. This is executed through branding- the creation of an emotional bond connecting our visitor audiences to Gaston County.  A credible, authentic, resonant brand differentiates us from the pack, provides consistent messaging for our tourism product and becomes an aspirational rallying point for residents and tourism partners.  A strong and unique identity helps us attract more visitors and to generate more revenue. With branding, we actively support all pillars of our strategic plan- sales & marketing, partnership, client satisfaction and destination management.

With our strategic plan and unique positioning through destination branding, Gaston County is poised to grow tourism to levels not previously seen. I am incredibly excited to part of this vibrant destination, particularly at this time.

Michael Applegate
Director, Gaston County Travel and Tourism


SEABROOK SAYS: Tony Sigmon is the leader of the Gaston County Family YMCA which has five operational facilities.  When the Y’s $18 million new facility is ready, Gaston County may well have the best in America. Tony writes on HOPE.  Read on and commit to give it your thought time. NOW THAT YOU KNOW, WHAT WILL YOU DO?

When my friend Bill Seabrook asked if I would write an article for “Digging Deeper,” it immediately hit me what I wanted to cover.   In a time like this, in a place like this, we all need a good healthy dose of Hope in our lives. For several years I have been pondering the question, “what is our greatest need?”  Looking around and seeing the unrest locally and abroad, observing the current political climate, seeing young people put off adulthood longer now than ever and seeing yet others have to jump into adulthood way too early; all of this brings me to my next question, where is the hope?  Some get so busy with day to day and yet others find ways to escape reality.  There seems to be a huge void of hope in our world.

Last week I had the pleasure of serving my 22nd year at the YMCA’s Blue Ridge Leaders School in Black Mountain, NC.  This “school” is a week long program where 700 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 from YMCAs throughout the South experience a physical education and leadership development training school so that they can become better leaders for their home YMCAs and communities.   Once again I was reminded what “Hope” looks like and through the eyes of a young person.   At the school there are eight 17/18 year olds who serve the school, having been selected the previous year as the “best of the best.”  They are called Honor Leaders.  Two of those Honor Leaders shared a reflection on HOPE.  Instead of listening to me pontificate, here is some of what they had to say.


Hope. A small word, with a large meaning.  It plays a different role in each of our lives and there are many ways to define it.  Hope is looking towards the future with a clear vision.  Hope is acknowledging the uncertainty that is possible in any given situation.  Hope is our motivation to continue persevering through a difficult situation.  Often, hope is the idea we cling to when all our efforts have failed.  That small word, with such an incredible meaning, is essential to having a healthy spirit and mind.  Throughout different experiences in life, we have a persistent twinge of hope that the best outcome will be in our favor.  During these times, where do we find hope? Often we turn to temporary gratifications such as social media, negative attention or bad habits.  But they are just that, temporary and usually unhealthy.  Ultimately, this leaves us unsatisfied and wanting more.  When we find hope in temporary satisfactions, we are restricting ourselves from experiencing the hope that God provides us every day.

Think back to when you were a young child. Can you recall just how simple life was then?  We were surrounded by stories of happily ever afters, courageous heroes and victorious underdogs.  As children we have so much hope around us every day that it’s hard to be anything but positive.  The older we get, the realities of life alter our pure sight of this hope and it becomes more and more blurred.  Although we no longer cling to fictional stories to instill our hope, we have things that we do believe in.  For us and so many more we have the YMCA.  Here we see hope in action.  We see it when the dreams of an underprivileged child come true, when a struggling parent receives the financial assistance she needs to allow her children to attend camp or afterschool so she can work without worrying about them, or when a lonely widower gets time to socialize while they exercise in classes at the Y.  As leaders, it is our responsibility to use the hope we receive every day and spread it to others.  We all of have the potential to be someone’s hero.

When I hear an 18 year old talk like that to a group of 700 teens and 200 adults, I am inspired. It ignites a Hope in me that I want to share with others.  Our local community is right at that “Tipping Point” and there are so many great things that inspirational leaders are doing here in Gaston County.  My closest and favorite example is the New Y at Robinwood Lake.  To be a part of this incredible community lifting project is amazing, but working alongside leaders like Andy Warlick, Gene Matthews, George Henry, Richard Rankin, Steve Huffstetler, May Barger and Frank Craig is beyond a blessing to me.  Seeing so many more people excited to the point that they give the largest gifts that they have ever given to any project is a testament to leadership, inspiration and hope.  It is also a focused energy that creates a best of the best attitude and an excitement that is unparalleled.  My hope is that this is a beginning for Gastonia and Gaston County to see how bringing energy, vision, community and leadership together around a common cause brings great hope and makes dreams come true.  We have great potential to thrive as leaders, as community and as a county.  Now, “go be someone’s hero.”

Tony Sigmon
CEO, Gaston County Family YMCA

photo (13)

Interfaith Trialogue

SEABROOK SAYS: Quietly and effectively, the Interfaith Trialogue has been working for the future of Gaston County. Who are they? Better find out!  The issues this group tackles are becoming more important every day.  If you do not know, start to learn right now.   NOW THAT YOU KNOW, WHAT WILL YOU DO?

You may or may not know this, but Jews, Muslims and Christians have been meeting in Gastonia on a regular basis since the months following 9/11.

Also, you may or may not know that we have not only a synagogue, but also a mosque right here in Gastonia, too.

This group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Gastonia (we call ourselves the Interfaith Trialogue) have been gathering for the purposes of better understanding one another’s beliefs and practices (and hence our own), to remove barriers of misinformation and distrust, and to build strong relationships within our community.

Meetings are held the third Monday of every month, taking turns at various houses of worship throughout the community, including the Islamic Center, Temple Emanuel, and at a variety of churches around Gaston County.

A main study method used is called “Scriptural Reasoning”, whereby passages are chosen from the holy texts of each faith, comparing and contrasting the verses to learn the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian perspective of each reading.

Significant outcomes of Trialogue have been personal spiritual growth for participants, and the development of close relationships built on mutual respect and trust. We do not proselytize or attempt to convert one another to our respective faiths, nor to homogenize our differences, but rather gather in the spirit of mutual deference and understanding.

Over the past few years, the media has highlighted the Islamic faith, both in a good, but mostly bad, light. Meeting with local Muslims in a posture of learning serves, among many other things, to counter the negative narrative.  Our last meeting at the Mosque drew 35 people, and, on a positive note, our numbers continue to grow.

In the interest of community awareness, members of Gaston Trialogue have organized a “Walk for Peace” starting at 8:00 am on Saturday, July 9th.  We will begin at First United Methodist Church on Franklin Boulevard and walk to the Temple, various churches in Gastonia, and then end at the Islamic Center to enjoy an “Abrahamic meal” to celebrate.  Fellowship, prayer, refreshments and transportation will be available along the way.  If you have more interest in our group and/or the “Walk for Peace”, please feel free to send an email to gastontrialogue@gmail.com.

Rev. Dr. Joan C. Martin
Covenant Village

Some Thoughts on Faith Serving Society

SEABROOK SAYS:  Let your imagination run wild! Can you predict the results if 800 churches collaborated on one service to our community?  Read on please.       

For many of us in Christian traditions, some fascination develops about the ways our particular strains express the life of faith in the world. The conscious interaction of Reformed Protestants with the world in transformational ways is perhaps peculiar to its roots in medieval Europe. The rise of cottage industry (particularly textiles), the emerging middle class, the printing press (with its incumbent effect on literacy), and the decay of feudal society led toward the questioning of existing authority and empowerment of people for a new level of engagement with the formation of their world. This capacity is ingrained in the DNA of those traditions.

Ultimately, those traditions appealed to interests in educational opportunity, technological advances, increased social mobility, and other developments that had served to benefit those adherents. Subsequently, the intersection of faith and action was manifest in dramatic ways. Perhaps in part it was a response to the admonition of scripture (that they could now read and study). Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, “by their fruits you will know them,” and the Book of Acts describes the early Christians as people “who turned the world upside down.” Perhaps it was a reflection of the belief Walter Brueggemann accords to the Hebrew prophets that “justice and righteousness could be done in the world.” Or perhaps, it emerges from the broad understanding of “calling” or vocation as being how one lives out God’s plan or destiny for ones life in ways no longer confined simply to ecclesiastical practice. Faith, thus understood, was always more than simply a private affair between an individual and God, but more dramatically a public responsibility. Thus, a John Calvin does more than simply pastor a congregation in Geneva, but also works with the city council on legislation and within society to establish hospitals, etc.

Richard Niebuhr in his classic work, Christ and Culture, explored the complex relationships and understandings of different traditions between faith and society, Christ and culture. For instance, the Christ against culture tendencies expressed by someone like Tolstoy might be manifest radically in communities that withdraw dramatically from society (like the Amish). On the other end of the spectrum are traditions that represent the Christ of Culture represented by traditions like the high medieval scholasticism of Aquinas. Between the two poles are varying intermediate positions among which is the Christ transforming position descriptive of traditions, like the Calvinists. Endeavoring to transform society invited active intervention on behalf of people of faith. Thus, it comes as no surprise that 19 Calvinists were signers of our own Declaration of Independence. For God’s expectation of God’s people to be that service to their calling required attending society’s ills for the glory if God.

In the Presbyterian Church, our Book of Order affirms the principle that “God alone is Lord of the Conscience.” A God-given and God-expectant conscience demands the conviction of action. Further, its exercise is more than merely a private response to the life of faith, it is a public requirement. The faith confessed privately becomes the faith professed in its public expression. It is never enough to “talk the talk” without “walking the walk.” If the study of scripture reveals God’s concern for human well-being, then the life of faith demands action supporting that concern in the arenas of education, politics, health, the justice system, the business community, and all structures that influence the general welfare of others.

It is this relationship between God’s concern for the well-being of human society that informs people of faith in the forging of partnerships and relationships for the purpose of undertaking transformational tasks. Thus we see the work of foundations, civic organizations, faith communities, and other entities as indelibly linked to the rendering of God’s compassionate will in the world.

John Frye
Senior Minister
First Presbyterian Church, Gastonia

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


Preserving a Passion for Life

Early in my adult life I was frequently described using less than flattering terms like driven, aggressive, and relentless. While my drive to achieve generated professional success, I simply was not a pleasant person. I always wanted more. No level of accomplishment was ever enough, so I pushed myself and everyone around me for the ever-elusive gold standard of perfection.

Since perfection inevitably proved impossible for me I would shift my efforts to making those around me perfect. My colleagues, coworkers, and family exhibited the proverbial patience of Job just to tolerate my never-ending quest for more, more, more.

Over the course of time the planets of my life aligned causing me to realize that I am not the center of anyone’s universe.  I still remember the moment while on a flight from Seattle to Charlotte when this reality struck me like a ton of bricks. That poignant and sometimes painful journey is another story for another day, but the essence of it is this — through a series of deep frustrations and self-inflicted setbacks it became increasingly clear that I am not the sum total of my accomplishments. I embraced the full truth of my faith tradition and discovered that relentless pushing for perfection is not necessary. I discovered the ‘rest’ of the gospel that I had so arrogantly short-sold all my life. Realizing that my identity had been established in the work of Christ and not my own my own performance brought a welcome wave of relief not only to me, but to those around me. Gradually my obsessive drive receded and in its place a newfound passion emerged. I began working from who I truly am, not who I want to make myself appear to be.

What made this difference? What is that changes one from relentlessly driven to purposefully passionate? For me, it was simply acknowledging with my heart and my actions, rather than only with my lips, that there is a God. Once that happened, I no longer had to control every circumstance of my life. I could trust God’s plan.  And from honoring God, it was simply natural to honor His creations, who were the neighbors I had previously viewed as competitors.

This shifted perspective caused me to begin pursuing the power of partnerships and collaboration because I no longer had to hoard all the credit to feed my own fragile identity. No longer did I have to insulate myself from failure. Instead I could work wholeheartedly with others, encouraging their successes and not just my own accomplishment. Every interaction with every person became a fresh opportunity for partnership. Accomplishments became victories to celebrate – not for my own ego, but for my community, my friends, my colleagues, even people with whom my belief set might differ on significant issues.

Even failure could be embraced as a learning opportunity. The drive for perfection was replaced by seeking, finding, sharing, and caring. Your success became our success. Together we grew. People became partners, not projects or competitors.

That, in a nutshell is what keeps the passion alive in my life. It may seem a bit simple but simple is good. It has been said that these kinds of things are ‘deep enough for elephants to swim, yet shallow enough for children to play.” I invite you to join me in the sea of passionate partnerships. Some may swim. Some may playfully splash. But everyone is welcome to engage their passions as together we collaborate for the common good.

Dwayne Burks serves as executive director of the Gaston Faith Network. You may reach him by emailing collaboratingforthecommongood@gmail.com