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100-year-old high rise in Gastonia to become upscale hotel

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/23/17/07/ZVTv3.Em.138.jpeg|316
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
    The historic Lawyers Building in downtown Gastonia. Developer Nathan Kirby plans to convert the 100-year old building into a luxury hotel.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/23/18/29/13XrZJ.Em.138.jpeg|475
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/23/18/29/1mGAP.Em.138.jpeg|209
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

GASTONIA The narrow six-story bank building went up in downtown Gastonia nearly 100 years ago – the city’s first high rise and a symbol of its textile prosperity.

Construction took four years and only the finest materials were used, including marble, Honduran mahogany and African ebony. Faces of the Greek god Dionysus decorated outside walls of the neo-classical structure.

When the First National Bank went bust in the Great Depression, the 23,500-square-foot building at 168 W. Main Ave. turned into office space, primarily for lawyers. Since the 1980s it has stood empty, a symbol of downtown Gastonia’s struggling economy.

But the iconic Lawyers Building is about to take on new life as a small, upscale hotel and local leaders hope it will give downtown a boost.

The $4 million project is a public/private partnership with both the city of Gastonia and Gaston County providing incentives.

Developer Nathan Kirby said the hotel, a half-block from Gastonia’s new conference center, will have 31 rooms, a full-service restaurant, space for outdoor dining, a fitness room, swimming pool and valet parking. Depending on the room, rates will range from $100 to $200 a night. Kirby expects the people who stay will be coming to town for conferences or to visit on vacation. The target for opening is September.

Kirby said he’ll announce an affiliation with a well-known national brand at the groundbreaking ceremony in January.

“The quality of what we’re bringing will shock people. It’ll shock Charlotte,” said Kirby, 32. “I call this building the crown jewel. Historic buildings stick with you. It’s almost like they speak to us and tell us where they came from.”

For years, restoration plans for the Lawyers Building have failed. In 2007, Kirby joined Gastonia doctor Charles Hutchins in a partnership to revive the Lawyers Building and its Main Avenue twin, the Commercial Building. Both high rises are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Kirby, who runs a company called Downtown Pioneers, bought out Hutchins in 2012 and formed a company to take on the Lawyers Building project. His partners include Patrick and Heather Joyner, who own and operate several McDonald’s franchises in Western North Carolina.

Kirby said he helped the Joyners develop the Hollar Hosiery Mill in Hickory for commercial use. He’s also restored a Monroe hardware building for residential and commercial use.

In 2008, Kirby restored a building in downtown Gastonia for residential and commercial use, and later restored the building on Main Avenue now occupied by the Bottle Shoppe wine store.

For the Lawyers Building project, the Gastonia City Council approved an economic development grant in which increases in taxes and utilities as a result of the project are refunded to the developer after a year for a period of 10 years. Gastonia City Manager Ed Munn said the plan is structured so that there’s no risk to the city.

“We’re basically using increased revenue as a rebate as long as the hotel is open and meets our standards,” he said.

Gastonia Ward 4 City Council member Todd Pierceall called the hotel project “a really good thing for Gastonia.”

“It’ll be great for downtown,” he said. “I’m proud they’re doing it.”

Gaston County commissioners also approved an economic development grant – $27,160 a year for 10 years. That’s slightly less than the annual $31,920 amount Kirby’s group initially sought.

“The deal is structured so that the county won’t lose anything, but will instead reinvest whatever new revenue the development produces,” said Commissioner Jason Williams. “The county attorney and interim manager did a great job working with the developer to assure the commissioners that if the project isn’t successful, the county is protected.”

If the project succeeds “we will have one of the most historic buildings in Gaston County restored, and we’ll give downtown Gastonia a much needed shot in the arm,” Williams said. “In today’s economy, we owe it to the citizens to do whatever we can to help create jobs and promote investment within our county.”

Competing mill barons built Gastonia’s two downtown high rises.

In the Lawyers Building, which went up in 1918, Kirby said he found a richness of materials along with a structural soundness. With six floors, mezzanine and basement, the building exceeds fire codes, he said.

Kirby thinks a hotel is the highest and best use for the property.

“We have some clear challenges, but Gastonia has one of the coolest downtowns,” he said. “It’s been here all the time and we have to chip away at the rough edges. If I didn’t think downtown was coming back I wouldn’t be here.”

DePriest: 704-868-7745
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