The following is either good, or bad, depending on your outlook. Gaston County never makes the list of the hot new places to live. It has slower growth than other areas, absolutely no cachet to speak of, and no one has ever called it trendy.
There are a few key reasons for this. For starters, the Catawba River serves as a barrier to sprawl that is munching its way across many other parts of the region. And its deep blue collar textile plant roots (and overstated red-neck image) seem to have acted as a powerful repellent to tony home and mixed use developers so smitten with parts of Charlotte, Lake Norman and Fort Mill.
But back to good vs. bad: As someone who’s lived there for the last 17 years, its perennial lack of prestige is just fine with me. Gaston County – I live in Belmont – is a lovely, low-hassle place to live with fewer traffic issues to speak of, decent schools, boating, fishing, and a slightly more relaxed pace of small town Southern life.
Of course, there are constant moves afoot to change all that. Long suffering boosters have launched new brand and image: “Gaston Outside.” That’s as in outside the bustle and expense of city life in Charlotte, home of outside activities, and “outside the box.”
And in parts of eastern Gaston, the long-awaited change is already underway, particularly in Belmont, just a 20-minute drive to uptown. For starters, construction is finally underway on a long-awaited Harris Teeter grocery store. And the city just opened a riverfront park.
Here’s what else is happening:
On the dining front: Nellie’s Southern Kitchen, owned by the father of the Jonas Brothers pop musicians, opened in June downtown and features Southern fare and a rooftop terrace.
Across the street sits the demure Luna Hombre – a tiny space featuring tapas plates, cheese and charcuterie and wine. It will be interesting to see how such an adventurous (trendy?) menu will be received. The owner of Cosmos Café, which closed in uptown Charlotte earlier this year, is opening a new restaurant along Wilkinson Boulevard later this year, as well. (Popular dining mainstays include Sammie’s, Old Stone Steakhouse, and the String Bean.)
On the beer front: Rivermen Brewing Co. plans to expand into a restaurant/brewery in a new location next to the post office. They’ll have seating for 100-plus inside and another 100 outside.
On the housing front: Construction is underway on the massive 850-home South Shore development in Belmont along 5 miles of Lake Wylie shoreline near the Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens. The master-planned McLean development will include a marina, neighborhood garden, hiking and biking trails, a park and commercial development.
The first estate and cottage homes are scheduled to be completed this fall. Prices range from the mid $200,000 for 1,600 square-foot cottage homes to large custom waterfront homes priced at nearly $2 million.
Nearby Mount Holly is starting to catch up. In downtown, there's a new $3 million streetscape plan, and exteriors of buildings from the 1890s and 1920s, many on the National Register of Historic Places, have been refurbished. Two restaurants on South Main are expected to open later this year.
A sprawling, 100-year-old former textile mill building has been transformed into the new Municipal Complex. Nearby, on N.C. 27, is the new 38,000-square-foot CaroMont Regional Medical Center-Mount Holly, the area’s first free-standing emergency department.
Crowds pack downtown for special events such as the Art & Music Festival, Food Truck Fridays, and what leaders describe as one of the top midsize, all-volunteer farmers markets in North Carolina.
South of downtown, across the Catawba River from the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a $21 million project now under construction includes 200 upscale apartments and the J. Peters Grill and Bar.
Mount Holly has 10 miles of Catawba River shoreline, the most of any city in the region. Last October, groundbreaking took place for the first phase of a paved greenway project that will eventually stretch 14 miles.
Gastonia, a former textile town of more than 71,000, is also in the process of remaking itself. The downtown has struggled, but don’t let that be a deal-breaker. The city has many attractive neighborhoods and subdivisions, and often deliver far more house for the money than you’ll find in Charlotte. And be sure to check out the Loray Mill loft apartment complex located in a historic brick building that used to be a massive textile mill.
▪ The Schiele Museum of Natural History includes traveling exhibitions, planetarium and lots of family activities.
▪ Crowders Mountain State Park, off I-85 on the west side of Gastonia, is a premier hiking and mountain-climbing spot that’s popular with both families and hardcore enthusiasts.
Roland Wilkerson, the Observer’s morning digital editor, has lived in Gaston County for 16 years.