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Community Profile
The Schiele Museum of Natural History & Planetarium
(left), founded in 1960, is home to the largest collection
of land mammal specimens in the Southeast.

County proud of innovative job training programs
Efforts salvage unique county's unique heritage

A New Day
Dawns in Gaston

One of the state's most industrialized counties
diversifies its economy while keeping old-time values

By Edward Martin

The trail is deserted in late afternoon and the only sounds are those of footsteps and the forest - a woodpecker drumming on a dead snag as squirrels chatter overhead. The first mile is along a stream lined with ferns, then it twists upward, over roots and loose rocks, to emerge on a natural balcony, ringed by boulders and gnarled pines. This is Crowders Mountain. Nearly a thousand feet almost straight down is Gaston County, in a sea of green treetops, broken by homes, highways and factories, and to the east, faintly, the skyline of Charlotte.

For 200 million years, weather has been wearing away the softer surrounding stone, creating what geologists call a monadnock, this unusual mountain with its sheer quartzite cliffs.

The pace of change - in a community of contrasts, contradictions and surprises - is considerably faster. Chosen for the second time in June as an All-American City, Gastonia and its surrounding county are remaking themselves in a new mold. Consider, suggests banker Alex Hall, who came to Gastonia three decades ago, its bedrock of industry, textiles.

"We're still a manufacturing town, but we're a lot more diverse," says Hall, whose First Gaston Bank has grown to $100 million in assets since it was founded in the mid 1990s, largely serving small businesses. "We've got companies like R.L. Stowe Mills, Parkdale Mills and American & Efird Mills that do tremendous volume, but they do it with a lot fewer people. We're a town in transition."

True. Add up the numbers. Gaston is the 10th largest of North Carolina's 100 counties and sixth most industrialized, but its 14 municipalities are the most of any of county in the state. That equals a large county of small towns.

Little League baseball is still king in communities such as Cherryville, settled in 1792 and whose town seal features three small cherries. Over in Gastonia, Tony's Ice Cream, begun in 1920, still serves double-dips on East Franklin Boulevard in a parlor occupied since 1947.

One-fourth as large as neighboring Mecklenburg County, Gaston, population 185,300, has eight museums, headed by the nationally recognized Schiele Museum of Natural History and Planetarium, and 800 churches and synagogues, in both cases, a fourth more than Mecklenburg.

Here, the catfish finds high status in the county's 30 fish camps, named from the sawdust floors of their 1930s predecessors along the Catawba River - one was recently featured in an international gourmet magazine - and the largest American flag in the nation makes gentle, thumping sounds as summer breezes catch its folds. Erected by veterans, it's a third as large as a football field.

ot far from Hall's bank in Gastonia, construction workers a few weeks ago were pushing Parkdale's new $4 million headquarters toward a completion date this winter (photo, left). To many like Hall, the building and company symbolize changing industry and commerce in a county rife with symbols.

Parkdale is the nation's largest independent cotton and synthetic yarn spinner, with nearly $1 billion in annual sales, and woven into the design of its new headquarters is an oculus - a kind of skylight - shaped like a cone and rising thorough the center of the building.

The shape was chosen to symbolize the millions of cones on which Parkdale mills and workers have spun their yarn since 1916. But Parkdale also represents what's new in Gaston's economy. Recently, Duke Kimbrell, 74, chairman and chief executive, was chosen by an industry journal as one of the two most influential textile leaders of the 20th Century. Computers, robots and microprocessors help it do more with less.

A few decades ago, its 2,700 workers in six plants produced 1.4 million pounds of cotton yarn a week, explains Andy Warlick, president. Today, the 29 plants of Parkdale and its Magnolia Manufacturing Co. have 3,500 workers, a quarter more, but each week they produce 14 million pounds of yarn for customers such as L.L. Bean Inc., Vanity Fair and Jockey International. That's 10 times as much.

"The market is unforgiving, and there's a heck of a lot more risk," adds D. Harding Stowe, whose family has operated Stowe Mills since 1901. "It's a lot more competitive, but the companies that have survived are the ones that have reinvested."

Stowe's company, of course, is one of those, and after a century, it is still helping to shape life in Gaston. It's restoring one of its classic 1920s mills in Belmont to become the centerpiece of a home and office complex, and Stowe notes that the town itself was recently chosen as a North Carolina Main Street Community.

As the textile industry goes through its global downsizing, though, Gaston is turning adversity to advantage. Along the Interstate 85 corridor are thriving companies such as German-owned Freightliner Corp., the nation's largest truck maker and Gaston's biggest employer, with 3,000 workers.

"They're continuing to grow, and they have nothing to do with textiles at all," says John Corbett, chairman of the Greater Gastonia Development Corp., noting also the increasing arrival of more corporate headquarters. Thirteen Fortune 500 companies have 20 locations in the county.

On land once reserved for textile plants, business parks are growing, and stoked by Freightliner, along with establishment of a BMW Manufacturing Corp. plant in nearby Grier, S.C., automotive and transportation equipment segments of Gaston manufacturing have soared by 400 percent in recent years.

"That gives us insulation against downturns in the economy that we didn't have 20 years ago," adds Warlick, noting the 1960s and 1970s when cyclical textile declines sometimes left one Gaston worker in five unemployed.

Donny Hicks, executive director of the Gaston County Economic Development Commission, says many economists view the most recent unemployment rate of 3.8 percent favorably. It was not high enough to be troublesome for job-seekers among the county's 95,000 workers, or retailers who sell them goods and services. Or, low enough that the county's 3,700 employers have to raid each others' workforces.

Hicks has led the charge in attracting most of the new breed of automotive and transportation suppliers. On a recent afternoon, driving through the rolling hills of southwestern Gaston, he recited many by heart.

One after another have come companies such as Stabilus, a German maker of pneumatic struts. The company not only located its plant on Tulip Drive but then moved its 100-person U.S. headquarters there, a $6 million investment.

Then Thermoform Plastics Inc. pumped $6.5 million into a new plant, making plastic products that wind up in autos. Gaston County industrial veteran Quality Metal Products Inc., which stamps metal parts for trucks and other equipment, built a $10 million plant. Most recently, Germany's CWW-Gerko Acoustics Inc., which makes soundproofing for cars, built a $7 million factory.

Not all of the transition, though, is in industry. White-collar and professional jobs are coming to Gaston, with decisions like those of Parkdale; the Wix Corp., long a major employer; Stabilus; and Curtiss Wright Flight Systems to locate corporate or divisional headquarters in the county.

"Growth throughout the region has helped us," explains Warlick, noting that half of the county's residents and businesses are closer to Charlotte's professional football, basketball, baseball and hockey teams, cultural events and airport, with its 517 domestic and international flights, than the majority of Charlotteans themselves.

"We've got the advantages of a large city, but we've still got a hometown feel," says Warlick, who, along with Stephen Stout, executive director of Greater Gastonia Development, notes that not all white-collar jobs relate to business.

Education, at Gaston College, Belmont Abbey and other institutions, and health care, are expanding. At Gaston Memorial Hospital, the flagship of CaroMont Health, advances such as a new, $50 million surgical wing, including open-heart surgery suites, along with an advanced cancer center, are attracting doctors.

Specifically, adds Jean Waters, the hospital spokesperson, 241 physicians have joined the system since 1991, nearly doubling its complement.

A sign of Gaston's growth and the hospital's rising status? A baby boom. In home-like settings, where fathers accompany new mothers and brothers and sisters welcome new siblings, called the Birthplace at Gaston Memorial, 2,091 new Gastonians arrived in 1995. Last year, the number rose to 2,601.

But to chart the future of Gaston County, economic recruiters, business men and women and historians say it helps to first understand its past.

In the 1800s, cotton became king and Gastonia emerged as a national textile capital. The movement was propelled by abundant labor as Carolinians turned from farms to factories, and cheap energy from the Catawba River and companies that would go on to become today's Duke Energy Corp., and Public Service Co. of North Carolina, now PSNC Energy Inc., the natural gas supplier.

As villages such as Dallas, Bessemer City and Mount Holly grew around mills, Gastonia, with its rail links, gradually emerged as the central location for a county seat. In 1898, notes Barbara Lawrence, downtown administrator, a burst of growth witnessed the construction of an opera house and the town's first skyscraper - the three-story Craig Building. In 1909, the county seat was moved from Dallas.

Today, efforts are under way to preserve and restore much of the downtown area, but it also symbolizes how much of the county's past is intertwined with the present. Morris Jewelers, a downtown business for 60 years, occupies the opera house.

"Some of these businesses have been here 50 years or more, and that tells me they're good and solid and in good locations," says Lawrence. Nearby is rising a commitment to the area's future: BB&T, the county's largest bank, with 250 employees and 14 branches, is building a $5 million local headquarters.

"We've done well here from a profitability and growth standpoint," says Corbett, city executive. "But the new building is our way of showing our commitment to keeping the inner city viable."

Through the heyday of textiles, Gaston thrived. Billy Ray Rhyne Jr., a youngster in the 1950s, remembers the glow from windows of mills working around the clock. His father ran the local bus system and would get calls late at night when a bus broke down. "You'd have 40 people about to miss their shift or get fired if that bus was late."

Billy Ray Rhyne's America Charters Ltd., still based in Gastonia, today logs millions of miles a year, carrying tourists on a fleet of more than 30 charter buses.

Gastonia set other standards. Now led politically by Mayor Jennie Stultz, a civic booster who wears red, white and blue ribbons on her blouse, it was named an All American City in 1963, partly on the strength of its progressive approach to racial integration.

In June, it received the honor a second time. "Gaston is experiencing a renaissance," says Stultz, a native, who notes that the community maintains an unusual stability. She still sees high school friends almost daily.

Three projects were cited in the 2000 All-American City award.

One was a collaborative effort by St. Stephens AME Zion church and the local arts council to save a historic church. A second was conversion of a 1904 downtown building to a home for the local literacy council, and the third was a program by the Gaston Boys and Girls Club to help at-risk youths excel in school. "Seventy percent now make honor rolls," says Stultz.

That legacy continues, note Corbett and John Bridgeman, a real estate executive and first-term state representative, with a current effort called Gaston Together.

Two years ago, they explain, ministers from more than 30 churches of different races and denominations began swapping pulpits. "We're working to get the entire community pulling together to make us stronger," adds Al Munn, former county planner and now assistant city manager.

Gaston's success stems from other basic elements. One is location. Munn notes, for example, that the county is known for watersports and upscale residential and golf course communities, such as Cramer Mountain Country Club, which sits on its eastern boundaries. Other areas thrive along the Catawba and in the foothills to the west. "Plus, on a pretty Sunday afternoon, you can drive down into South Carolina for fresh peaches."

After weathering union strife in the 1920s, Gaston industry flourished through the 1960s until automation and overseas competition changed textiles forever. Its new era began.

That's obvious, say local leaders, in recent new and expanded industries and businesses:

The most dramatic is Buckeye Technologies Inc., which last October announced it would build a $100 million plant between Stanley and Mount Holly where 220 workers (at an average salary in excess of $45,000) will make the kind of airlaid, nonwoven fibers used in products that range from disposable diapers to air filters.

Buckeye had just acquired Walkisoft Inc., a similar plant in Gaston, and was persuaded by its executives' high recommendations. "Gaston competed with the world on this one," says Rick Carlisle, North Carolina secretary of commerce. "And Gaston won."

Curtiss Wright, which overhauls aerospace components, consolidated its operations from several locations, including its corporate headquarters, to a building on Gastonia Northwest Boulevard recently, adding 55 employees.

Pass & Seymour/Legrand, high-technology maker of electronic components, became the first tenant in the new Gastonia Technology Park adjoining Gaston College in Dallas, with a $30 million plant that will employ 125.

CWW-Gerko's first plant in America, in Delta Industrial Park, expects to hire as many as 60 workers. In the same park, a longstanding Gaston firm, Jewell Building Systems, created 100 new jobs with a plant that manufacturers galvanized framing systems for buildings. Some of its products stay at home. "The second Baptist Church in Mount Holly is one our buildings," says Everett Jewell, president.

Advanced Drainage Systems Inc., which makes polyethylene pipe, added 65 workers to Gaston's economy with a $10 million plant in Bessemer City, in part, says Bob Klein, who directs the Ohio company's real estate, because of easy access to I-85 and Norfolk-Southern rail lines.

A longtime local institution, The Gaston Gazette, has signed a deal to print the regional edition of The New York Times, which, says John Pea, editor, will involve moving into a former Home Quarters Warehouse that covers more than two acres. The $17 million development will require hiring a dozen new employees, in addition to 190 already on staff.

Why the upturn for Gaston County? Hicks and Stout, plus some who've recently arrived, point to a number of reasons.

One is aggressive recruiting and infrastructure. "This wasn't the only place we looked," says Sondra Dowdell, a Buckeye engineer and now public affairs director. "We looked throughout the Southeast, but the economics of locating in North Carolina were more attractive."

Gaston, adds Hicks, is also able to offer incentives. Much of the county is considered a North Carolina development zone, meaning companies such as Buckeye and Pass & Seymour/Legrand are eligible for job credits of up $5,000 per new job, plus a seven percent credit for production equipment.

Infrastructure abounds, too. In addition to training like Gaston College's and that of the unique N.C. Center for Applied Textile Technology in Belmont, plus an innovative new technology high school opening this fall, Hicks says more than 100,000 square feet of speculative industrial and office space is available. Business parks are plentiful. Three major ones are:

• Summit, near Gaston Memorial Hospital, 70 acres between two Interstate 85 exchanges, focused on medical and other users;

• Gaston Technology Park, developed with the help of adjoining Gaston College, a 350-acre park where Pass & Seymour/Legrand is the first trophy tenant;

• Delta Business Park, home to CWW-Gerko and others, a 150-acre park focused more on pure manufacturing and distribution, on Interstate 85 in Gastonia;

• Southridge Business Park, on the edge of Bessemer City, 400 acres being developed by Parkdale Mills and already the home to companies such as Quality Metal.

The results can be found almost everywhere in the county.

On Gastonia's southwest side, in a setting of bright new stores, the murmur of shoppers and background music, Eastridge Mall, at 1.1 million square feet, ranks as one of the region's largest. It recently completed a three-year makeover.

"Incomes are going up and so are the perceptions of Gaston," says Kurt Reddick, manager. The mall has 80 stores, including upscale newcomers such as Gap, America Eagle and Pacific Sunwear, in addition to mainstays such as Matthews Belk and Dillard's.

In another retail center, Franklin Square, a shopping center with more than a million feet of space in stores such as Wal-Mart and Old Navy, Mark Hannah, leasing agent for ACC Real Estate Services Inc., notes a similar trend.

"Gaston is rapidly evolving from a somewhat rural market into more metropolitan status," he says. "A lot of these retailers and restaurants, you would have never seen in Gaston a few years ago. It's becoming a regional destination for shoppers from the west, north and south."

Says who? Problem-Solving Research Inc., which maps retail trends, estimates Gaston retail sales will rise by a third, from $2.2 million this year to $3.2 million in 2010.

The new Gaston can't be measured entirely in money, though.Attitudes are shifting. Corbett, Stout, Hall and others cite, for example, growing impatience with the slowness of change. The county recently pushed for and got, with the help of Bridgeman, the legislator, state permission to move ahead with a private toll road linking Gaston and Mecklenburg across the Catawba River. It would be the state's first.

Quality of life is getting high priority. Gastonia, notes Munn, just paid $9.3 million for 400 acres on Mountain Island Lake to protect its water supply for the future and another $1.3 million for the first two miles of a greenway system that will link parks, schools, and sites such as the Shiele Museum and Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens.

But some of Gaston's old values remain as solid as the cliffs of Crowders Mountain. Gaston Memorial, for instance, recently honored a worker who used her own money to buy clothes for a homeless man who was a patient there.

And Corbett, who spearheaded the formation of Greater Gastonia Development last year, is looking forward both to change and permanence.

"We created the corporation because we're looking hard at the kind of community we want to see in the future and recognize it is going to change whether we like it or not," he says. But after a decade in Gaston, he's come to another conclusion.

"My wife and I love it here," he says. "Years ahead, when I decide not to be a banker any more, we've already decided. This is where we're going to stay."

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared in the September 2000 issue of North Carolina magazine.

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