Can a snappy new brand help kick-start development in Gaston County?

Gaston County Commission Chair Tom Keigher signs a placard with the new Gaston Outside logo during an unveiling ceremony at the Gastonia Conference Center on Wednesday, June 1, 2016. They're hoping to attract more jobs, investment and residents with the new campaign.
Gaston County Commission Chair Tom Keigher signs a placard with the new Gaston Outside logo during an unveiling ceremony at the Gastonia Conference Center on Wednesday, June 1, 2016. They're hoping to attract more jobs, investment and residents with the new campaign.

What do you think of when you hear “Gaston County?”

If you’re like most people in Mecklenburg County in a recent survey, the answer is “not much.” And Gaston County leaders – the county with the slowest growth rate of Mecklenburg’s neighbors, long perceived to be made up of lagging communities of defunct textile mills – have a plan to change that.

The Greater Gaston Development Corporation unveiled a new brand and image for Gaston County that you’ll be seeing a lot of over the next three years. “Gaston Outside” – as in outside the bustle and expense of city life in Charlotte, home of outside activities such as hiking, rock climbing and boating and “outside the box” – is going up on billboards along Interstate 85, U.S. 74 and other advertising spots and social media.

Of course, the GGDC, whose mission is to grow the county’s tax base and bring more jobs, knows it will take more than a new slogan to speed up growth in Gaston. They want to see funding for better schools, more job-training programs, new bridges across the Catawba and South Fork rivers to relieve bottlenecks coming and going from Mecklenburg and more investment in efforts to lure businesses to Gaston.

“You have to have the substance as well as the sizzle,” said Mark Cramer, executive director of the GGDC. “The image campaign is just part of a much larger whole.”

That doesn’t mean they’re skimping on the sizzle, however.

“It cannot be an advertising campaign,” said Joel Long, the group’s chairman. He was speaking at Wednesday’s event, surrounded by photos of Gaston County and bartenders pouring local craft beers from Ole Dallas Brewery. “Really, this is a truth campaign.”

The public-private partnership came together in 2014 to study how to promote economic growth in the county, following what Long said was a failure to win several new projects. They’ve picked up $1 million in raised or pledged funds, with $225,000 coming from private sources and the rest raised from a mix of municipalities and Gaston County tourism funds.

One of their conclusions: Gaston County doesn’t just have a problem with a negative image, Gaston has a problem with not having much of an image at all outside the county.

Andy Warlick of Parkdale, Inc., a GGDC member, recounted to the audience this week what happened when he told someone recently that he’s from Gastonia. Everyone in the conference center’s gathering room knew the next line: “Where’s that?” the audience said.

Then, unprompted, the response: “Right outside of Charlotte.”

“We’ve been left outside of Charlotte,” said Warlick. “We have the opportunity to take perceived weaknesses and make them real strengths.”

In many ways, Gaston would seem to be perfectly positioned for economic growth to take off. It’s close to Charlotte, with U.S. 74 and Interstate 85 running through Gaston, past the bustling airport and straight to uptown. Land is plentiful, there’s good access to major transportation hubs and Charlotte’s offices, schools and jobs are a half-hour or so away.

But Gaston County has seen the slowest growth of any of the counties that abut Mecklenburg, with an annual growth rate of 0.8 percent from 2010 to 2014. The county added about 4,600 new residents in that time, according to state estimates.

Compare that to a 3.2 percent annual growth rate for Mecklenburg over the same period, which added about 93,500 new residents. Union County saw a 6.3 percent annual growth rate and added 14,600 new residents.

Gaston County’s employment base has also changed dramatically as mills and other traditional manufacturers shut down or moved overseas. According to a 2014 report from Alliance for Growth, a special task force commissioned by the Greater Gaston Development Corporation, the number of manufacturing jobs in Gaston County stands at about 15,000, down from a high of just over 40,000 in the early 1970s.

Gaston also has lower household median income, estimated at $51,726 in 2014. That compares with $69,166 in Mecklenburg and $73,755 in Union.

The county isn’t sugarcoating its image challenges with people around the region. In a poll of Mecklenburg residents commissioned by the Alliance for Growth, 78 percent had only “moderate” or “low,” knowledge of Gaston County. Of Gaston residents, 42 percent had a negative impression of their county, fueled by the perception of a lack of job opportunities. A group of large developers active in the region who were surveyed also said they have a negative impression of the county.

With the state’s final cancellation of the planned Garden Parkway, a toll road that would have given travelers a third way across the Catawba River, Gaston lost a potential new artery. Traffic heading across the Catawba is now limited to I-85 and U.S. 74, with frequent traffic jams at peak travel times.

“The new brand is a smart move to present itself to both newcomers to the area, and perhaps more importantly, people who already live in the area, like Charlotte residents,” said Brannon Cashion, president of Charlotte-based branding firm Addison Whitney. “While it may take some warming up to it, the new brand presents compelling reasons why people live there.”

There are positive developments to highlight in Gaston County. Brazilian-based Maistro Investments is building a 50,000-square-foot speculative industrial building in Gastonia Technology Park, meant to help lure advanced industrial tenants. The historic Loray Mill in Gastonia was redeveloped into new loft apartments, and Owens Corning is holding a ribbon-cutting soon for a new advanced manufacturing facility in the city as well.

“It’s a good move on their part,” Ronnie Bryant, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, which promotes the wider region, said of the rebranding effort. “Gaston County is one of our most successful counties from an industrial point of view.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo