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Up the Downtown
There's no arguing that Gastonia's economy, hard-hit from the loss of the textile mills that long succored it, has faced an often daunting recovery, but even the coldest winter must eventually concede the spring. Longtime residents and even newcomers to the town (myself included) are possessed of a certain pride of place here, and those feelings are not unfounded. Shhh, don't tell anyone ... but Gastonia is actually pretty cool. Although when we first arrived, if tumbleweed had rolled across downtown Main Street (which for some reason is Main Avenue) at high noon, I wouldn't have found it surprising, but that, too, is changing.
Melissa Turney, promotions coordinator for the nonprofit Gastonia Downtown Development Corporation and a native Gastonian, remembers a time when the downtown, with two movie theaters, music shops and an ice-cream parlor, was the place to be. "There was plenty to do here on a Saturday night," she recalls. "Parents used to drop their teenagers off early in the evening and pick us up after a night at the movies or out with our friends."
But for Gastonia, like many communities in the South and across the country, the rise of the mall resulted in the demise of the mom-and-pop culture that fueled small-town economy. When Belk Department Store, the pillar that had historically anchored Gastonia's downtown commerce, pulled stakes and moved quarters to the Eastridge Mall, it was the beginning of the end. As other retail establishments and businesses fled or failed, buildings and even blocks that once thrived were left empty and lifeless. When an ill-starred enhancement project in the 1980s resulted in long construction delays and torn-up sidewalks that rendered access to the remaining businesses un-navigable, it was the final nail in the coffin.
With the downtown for all intents and purposes dead, a handful of individual investors swooped in like buzzards to scoop up the derelict properties and began warehousing them. The legacy of neglect and decay their years of stewardship engendered is still evident in the caved in roofs and vacant storefronts that pepper the downtown landscape. But to find hope, one only need turn the corner.
At the intersection of Main and Marietta, those who care to look can see the beginning of a renaissance. The once high-Victorian structure, replete with soaring cupolas and ornate casements, an until-recently unremarkable (and frankly, ugly) building, is undergoing a facelift. From beneath a thick layer of obstinate stucco, a forgotten façade -- it's original signage and much of the detail intact -- is being revealed. On the floor opposite Melissa Turney's desk in the GDDC office (located in an already restored portion of the landmark Standard building on South Street opposite City Hall), a turn-of-the-century black-and-white photo reveals what once was, and what may someday be. Although it's doubtful that the grand lady can be restored to her full former glory -- cupolas such as those are hard to come by -- there's little doubt that she can be made beautiful once again.
The completed lofts at the Standard, a mixed-use retail and residential project, are already fully tenanted. And the additional housing units, scheduled for completion in the coming months, won't likely languish long on the market. While housing and retail prices in Charlotte's more desirable neighborhoods continue to skyrocket beyond the reach of many homebuyers and would-be business owners, in Gastonia, you can still get a lot of bang for your real estate buck. Logic holds that with a 30-minute commute to Center City, economics are eventually going to speak louder than any perception or misconception that "Gas Town" is a throwback to the days of Ma and Pa Kettle.