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Belmont still thriving in tough economic climate

Speciality stores and chain restaurants see potential in eastern Gaston County

By Joe DePriest
jdepriest@charlotteobserver.com
Joe DePriest
Joe DePriest is a columnist for the Neighbors of Catawba & Gaston.

It isn't the best of economic times, but Teresa McCarter has decided to open a new business anyway.

Within the next few days, she'll launch Happy Dog Café & Boutique at 26 N. Main St. Suite 1 in downtown Belmont.

McCarter, 48, gave up her job as operations manager of Charlotte-based Emco Inc., a power transmission distributor, to start a specialty shop for dogs in her hometown.

She'll stock everything from gourmet health food and supplements to dress-up clothing and life jackets. Prices will range from 59 cents for a treat to $100 for bedding.

“Some of my friends who aren't dog lovers thought I'd lost my mind,” McCarter said. “But I think it's the right thing to do. Belmont is a dog-friendly town. People love their animals, and they love to walk them.”

Despite the challenging economic times, activity in and around the heart of this eastern Gaston County city is still robust, leaders say.

Ted Hall, president of the Montcross Area Chamber of Commerce, said work is progressing on String Bean, a new fresh market and deli at 106 N. Main St. The building was formerly occupied by the Emporium, a gift and antique shop that closed on June 14.

String Bean owner Chad Hutcheson, an instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, said last week the target opening date is Oct. 1. The new business will include meats and produce from local vendors along with a selection of cheese, beer, wine and sandwiches.

Hutcheson also plans to bring in experts from Johnson & Wales to provide cooking instruction and speak at wine tastings.

“We've started renovating the building and are right on track,” he said. “And we're still getting positive feedback from the community.”

String Bean's first catering job is Thursday at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, Hutcheson said.

Half of the String Bean building will be occupied by Just Hardwoods, a flooring business on South Main Street in Belmont.

Hall said Discovery Place is still considering a children's museum for the historic Chronicle Mill building in downtown. Unlike the science and technology-focused Discovery Place in uptown Charlotte, the “Kids” satellite would target children 7 or younger. Themed exhibits would center on learning language, problem-solving and cooperation through play.

Discovery Place staff met in the spring with local leaders and community members to gauge support for financial resources for the project.

Debbie Curry, project director for Discovery Place Kids, said a decision will probably be made within two or three months.

“We're really happy with the response we got in all of Gaston County,” she said.

Meanwhile, Belmont planning director Elson Baldwin said a new Chili's Restaurant is targeted for the Montcross Shopping Center on Wilkinson Boulevard. Last week, the city got a revised site plan that will be considered soon by the planning board's technical review committee.

Also, Baldwin said Cracker Barrel is looking at a location for a new restaurant in the Montcross Shopping Center near the Gaston County Visitor's Center. Restaurant officials had been interested earlier in building near the new Hampton Inn, but Baldwin said the focus has now shifted.

Even with all the activity going on, Hall said local businesses are “feeling the effects of high gas prices.”

“With its proximity to Charlotte, Belmont is a very desirable place to be,” Hall said. “I think we'll see business come back. We've got to get through this in as good a shape as possible.”

Survival seminars

Beginning Aug. 1 and running through November, the chamber will begin offering a series of seminars to help small businesses deal with the economic downturn.

The first program will be on sales and marketing. Locations, times and other details will be announced later, Hall said.

The seminars will be free for chamber members and open to non-members for a small fee.

Also on Aug. 1, the chamber will begin a member-to-member discount program and a promotion supporting local businesses.

When McCarter opens Happy Dog Café & Boutique, she hopes to draw customers not only from Gaston and Lincoln counties, but west Mecklenburg County; Fort Mill, S.C.; and Lake Wylie, S.C.

She got the idea for a pet gift shop from a store in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where she picked up treats for her dogs while on vacation. Last November, McCarter and her husband, Rob, a psychologist, took a 10-hour class offered by Barbara Burg, owner of the Canine Café in Charlotte.

Space is scarce these days in the central business district, and McCarter felt fortunate when a building recently became available.

For her, Happy Dog is a dream come true.

She plans to offer items and personalized service not available in chain-operated pet stores.

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