Gaston & Catawba

Economic development group to present broad growth plan

A recently formed economic development group in Gaston County plans to release Dec. 15 a comprehensive plan offering a range of initiatives to stimulate growth.

The plan will focus on a number of factors affecting economic activity that the nonprofit group, the Greater Gaston Economic Development Corp., will work to address in coming years.

Chief among them is expanding the inventory of available commercial properties in the county, which officials consider insufficient. “We have to have more product,” said Carroll Gray, executive director of the group, also known as Alliance for Growth.

Overseen by a 21-member board of trustees including public officials and local business leaders, the group was created by the Gaston Chamber of Commerce in August.

The county has its own economic development agency, which is attracting an increasing number of industrial investments. But while the two are working together, sharing an office building in Belmont, the Alliance for Growth is focused on luring a broader range of investment and diversifying the economy.

“There’s a lot of other markets out there,” said Bob Clay, chairman of the nonprofit group and a real estate executive in Belmont. He cited retailers and companies within the industrial sector as prospects.

Despite its close proximity to the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, Gaston is the slowest-growing county bordering Mecklenburg County, according to a study released earlier this year by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. That airport, economic development officials say, is perhaps the county’s greatest asset.

Besides the dearth of available commercial property, other factors that have long impeded growth in the county are its surface transportation infrastructure, with few major roads directly connecting to Charlotte, and the absence of a broad marketing strategy that could help distinguish itself.

“It’s not that Gaston has a bad image; it doesn’t have much of an image,” Clay said.

Those are among seven focal points being studied by the group’s committees during the past three months. The committees, comprising a total of more than 100 private and public stakeholders, have come up with dozens of recommendations that officials will present for the first time at the Dec. 15 meeting. It is scheduled to start 5 p.m. at the Gastonia Conference Center.

Whatever the extent of growth the county might see in coming years, the industrial sector will remain its key economic driver.

More than one-fourth of the existing manufacturing space in the county has seen development over the past three decades, said Donny Hicks, executive director of the Gaston County Economic Development Commission. With about a $1.1 million annual budget, the agency in recent years has drawn companies offering more high-skilled jobs, including in the metalworking and automotive industries.

And while the once-mighty textile industry in the county has dwindled – it has shrunk from some 38,000 workers in the early 1970s to 2,500 these days, he noted – industrial companies account for a considerable share of the county’s tax base.

“That’s really where our best opportunity is for growth,” Hicks said, citing more than a dozen such companies that have either announced or completed expansions and the building of new facilities over the past four years.

He attributed such investments, mainly from companies based abroad, at least partly to the nearby airport, calling it “critically important” in helping the agency land them and saying it has “helped us separate ourselves from the competition.”

For its part, the nonprofit group will work to further promote the county as an attractive place to invest, partly by focusing on workforce development and ensuring that local regulations create an environment conducive to business.

But despite its broad support, carrying out the plan could pose challenges, including finding ways to generate enough private investment.

“There’s not a silver bullet,” said Gray, the director of the group, which is operating with a $225,000 annual budget.

The group is expected to adopt the plan in January, after seeking public input for about a month. It will appear on the group’s website a day after the Dec. 15 meeting.

“Hopefully this is a plan that will be embraced by the entire community,” Gray said.