Gastonia enjoyed a shout out on SNL’s Weekend Update earlier this year, but the joke belies the progress happening in Charlotte’s western neighbor.
When it comes to economic development, Gaston County is an emerging hotspot for industrial development with ample inventory under construction. The community’s schools and community college lead the state in technical certifications for young workers to support those businesses. CaroMont Medical Center is planning a new hospital that is in the works for the growing eastside. And there’s energy in downtown Gastonia with a new stadium and minor league baseball.
It’s a combination that is attractive to companies bringing jobs and families to the area.
“What impressed us about Gaston County is that manufacturing is woven into the fabric of the community. It’s in its DNA,” says Stefan Hake, CEO of food processor GNT USA. “You see what the textile industry has gone through, but they innovate and they are still here.”
Last year, GNT chose Gaston County’s Apple Creek business park for its $30 million expansion. The investment will create 40 jobs.
Hake made his comments as part of a conversation among Gaston leadership on the successes of the community in recent years. The conversation was presented by the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance as part of an effort to highlight the unique aspects of the 15-county region.
Joining Hake on the panel were Dr. John Hauser, president of Gaston College, Quentin McPhatter, assistant city manager of the City of Gastonia, and Donny Hicks, director of the Economic Development Commission for Gaston County. TJ McCullough, president and publisher of the Charlotte Business Journal, moderated the discussion.
On how Gaston County is accelerating growth
Hicks says road widening, bridge replacement and water and sewer expansion are high priorities as Gaston County prepares for future growth.
North Carolina DOT will start work in 2024 widening I-85 from Belmont to Hwy. 321 near Dallas, says Hicks. That enormous project will take at least six years.
DOT also plans to replace bridges along US 74, including the bridge across the Catawba River. That work also includes design work to accommodate the proposed future Silver Line light rail from Charlotte into eastern Gaston County.
Already, the high-use US 321 interchange at I-85 has already been rebuilt to add functionality and handle truck traffic entering or exiting the interstate.
Extending water and sewer connections is part of the county’s growth plan. In February, Gastonia broke ground on a new water pump station that will supply nearly 2 million gallons of water per day to Bessemer City. A major sewer outfall line will support growth in the southern part of the county.
The county is on track to open a new Belmont Middle School in 2020. Already, the county has renovated a number of other schools, Hicks says.
On Gastonia’s economic development tools
The city of Gastonia invested $26 million in the Franklin Urban Sports & Entertainment district, or FUSE, which includes a 5,000-seat multipurpose stadium. The facility opened in April and is home to the Atlantic League professional baseball team, the Gastonia Honey Hunters. The facility is expected to generate at least $75 million in investment, jobs and economic growth in the downtown area.
The city’s construction of the FUSE Complex, now renamed CaroMont Health Park is just one tool used to increase investment and grow its tax base, McPhatter says.
Gaston County is home to nine identified Opportunity Zones, six of which are in the city of Gastonia. Investors who redevelop in these areas of distress are able to defer capital gains taxes.
While opportunity zones are relatively new and receiving strong developer interest, McPhatter says the city is providing assistance to developers to also pursue a similar but older program called the New Market tax credits program.
“A lot of those deals are very complicated to implement and I would argue that the New Market Tax Credits tool is very underutilized,” McPhatter says.
To increase utilization, Gastonia partnered with experts in the tax credits program to help developers evaluate projects and use the tax credit tools when possible.
“Not all of the tools work for all developers and their respective projects, but we want make sure we have all the tools to foster economic development within our great city.”
On why GNT USA chose Gaston County
GNT USA is among a series of companies announcing in the last year that they are making significant investments in Gaston.
Knoll America Inc. announced in June that it would spend $7.8 million to establish a U.S. headquarters and manufacturing center in Apple Creek industrial park and create 31 jobs. Knoll America is a German company that manufactures conveyor and filtration systems.
GNT has purchased almost 50 acres in Apple Creek and is building a $30 million food processing operation that will support 40 jobs. Hake says GNT was looking for a community with a strong manufacturing workforce that could help GNT grow and found that in Gaston County.
Other key ingredients that Gaston County supplied were an ample supply of water for food processing, capacity to handle food waste, and robust electricity and gas supply.
Lastly, the Apple Creek business park was a suitable home.
“Our site in Apple Creek will help us grow for the next 50 years,” Hake says.
On how Gastonia focuses on economic development
McPhatter says Gastonia’s city’s strategic plan, which is approved by the Mayor and City Council, provides guidance and direction to staff for the 59 goals and objectives for implementation. The city’s strategic plan includes six different focus areas, with one of the areas being economic vitality. To meet the economic development goals, McPhatter says the Mayor, City Council, and staff regularly reassess progress and revise the plan when needed. That includes working with small businesses as the country emerges from the pandemic.
“It’s important to assess how you are doing,” McPhatter says. “We are being intentional with our continued focus upon economic development and working our plan and adjusting as needed.”
Gastonia is adding a number of sports offerings as a way to bring people together, increase education opportunities and spark economic development.
Gastonia’s $26 million FUSE multipurpose stadium, now known as CaroMont Health Park, now hosts nearly 5,000 in downtown for the new Gastonia Honey Hunters baseball team.
After a 50-year drought, Gaston College is joining the National Junior College Athletic Association with plans to bring men’s baseball and basketball and women’s beach volleyball and softball as well as Esports to the Dallas campus. Intercollegiate competitions will start this fall.
On how Gaston is addressing workforce capacity
Ensuring Gaston County has a trained and ready workforce requires collaboration between educators at all levels, Hauser says. It starts with Gaston County Schools, extends through Gaston College, and includes a partnership with Belmont Abbey College.
There has been a particular focus on helping students achieve career and technical education credentials. Gaston County Schools ranked first in the state in the number of career and technical education credentials earn by students, with nearly 15,000 certificates earned. That number far exceeds the number of students earning certificates in larger counties like Mecklenburg and Wake.
Gaston County Schools is starting a new healthcare academy and early college science high school. Other targeted training programs include the Center for Advanced Manufacturing on the Gaston College campus.
Likewise, Gaston College ranked first in the state in 2021 with apprenticeship partnerships and second in the state for customized training programs delivered to companies.
“We spend $750,000 investing in the workforces at those companies,” Hauser says.
Gaston College has an agreement with Belmont Abbey that all successful associate degree graduates from the community college are accepted at Belmont Abbey to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
“It’s another step to retain talent and we are driving new program development based on demand in areas such as cybersecurity, logistics and transportation,” Hauser says. “We are right there with employers.”
On adding warehouse options
The corporate search for a new manufacturing or distribution location is short, and the only communities that make the cut are those that have buildings ready for tenants.
“You have to have sites or buildings in place ready to go,” Hicks says.
Gaston County has always been a strong contender for single tenant industrial and manufacturing companies looking for a new location. In the past year, Gaston has become much stronger in the warehouse market, capitalizing on the I-85 location near other major highways.
“We are chasing ecommerce projects that we were out of as recently as two years ago,” Hicks says. “We have 1.5 million square feet of speculative space under construction and we are chasing largest distribution projects in the Southeast.”
On Gaston’s biggest success
Gaston County has excelled in recent years at recruiting a strong commercial tax base, Hicks says. That strong industrial and commercial tax base helps fund improvements in schools and other infrastructure.
“It’s a balance in our revenue stream and it creates a healthy tax base,” Hicks says.
Fundamental to that recruitment has been the work done to have business parks and spec buildings ready for new corporate citizens. That includes a new 365-acre site in Lowell and Gastonia being developed with 3.6 million square feet of industrial space. When completed, it will be one of the largest industrial parks in the Charlotte region.
In 2020, Gaston County broke ground on Apple Creek industrial park, which is 300 acres near Dallas. Hicks expects the park to take 10 years to fill out.
“We have been able to consistently not lose focus on developing our commercial and industrial tax base and recruit high quality jobs,” Hicks says. “The jobs we are recruiting are jobs with higher page average than 97 other counties. We have put in place the asset to compete and recruit at a high level.”