Recently retired from Poseidon Seafood, a Charlotte seafood distributor he started in 1986, Richard LaVecchia was getting antsy with his newfound freedom and decided to drive into downtown Belmont in Gaston County to look around.
That was about six years ago. LaVecchia had lived nearby on the shore of Lake Wylie in South Carolina but had never explored the little towns in neighboring Gaston County, directly west of Charlotte.
“I was driving down Main Street and saw all these empty buildings with for-sale signs,” he said. “The more I looked around I realized there was nothing going on and started wondering what was wrong.”
Many have wondered the same thing. Of all the counties bordering Mecklenburg, Gaston has benefited the least from its proximity, said Jeff Michael, director of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Urban Institute.
During the past decade, counties surrounding Mecklenburg, such as Cabarrus, Union and York, have seen their populations and number of jobs skyrocket, while Gaston has remained relatively stagnant.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Gaston County’s population grew just 9.7 percent from 2000 to 2009, from 190,365 to 208,958. During that same period, Union County’s population increased 61 percent, from 123,677 to 198,645; Cabarrus County grew by 31 percent, from 131,063 to 172,223; and York County 38 percent, from 164,614 to 227,003. Mecklenburg County’s population spiked, too, from 695,454 to 913,639, a 31 percent increase.
Gaston’s slower pace of growth is blamed on various factors. Some suggest that the Catawba River and the limited number of bridge crossings into Mecklenburg made access to Gaston’s land for development purposes more challenging than in other counties.
“If you look at the region’s job and population growth over the last 10 years you’ll see Mecklenburg County is the real driver,” said Donnie Hicks, Gaston County’s director of economic development. “And the counties that that are physically connected to Mecklenburg have mirrored its growth.”
Hicks points to Union County to the south, which is connected to Mecklenburg via Highway 74, Cabarrus County to the east, which is connected via Interstate 85, and Iredell County to the north, connected via Interstate 77.
“Those three counties have had growth rates very close to what Mecklenburg has had, while we’ve lagged behind,” he said. “The Catawba River is a great amenity, but it also blocks traffic and limits our access.”
Others have suggested the sheer pervasiveness of the textile industry, which rose to prominence in Gaston County in the late 19th century, has impeded growth. For more than a century, the textile industry was the driving economic force in Gaston County and throughout much of North Carolina. But the industry effectively died starting in the 1990s as textile companies moved operations overseas for cheaper labor.
“The presence of the mills for so long created a stereotype image of Gaston County,” Michael said. “For whatever reason, surrounding counties that had a similar histories were able to transform themselves, while Gaston has struggled.”
‘Altering that image’
All those factors have given Gaston County a bad image, and it’s widely viewed as an impoverished area with an unskilled work force and plagued with drugs and crime, especially in the city of Gastonia’s western district.
The website Life in Gastonia has a page dedicated to posting mug shots of women arrested for prostitution in Gastonia.
But county officials say efforts are under way to revitalize the county, and some towns, such as Belmont and Mount Holly, are reinvesting in their urban cores.
“Certainly, a kind of inferiority complex exists in Gaston County,” said Jim Palenick, manager for the city of Gastonia. “But we’re working at altering that image and moving past it.”
Helping in those efforts is LaVecchia. When he learned that the old Belmont police station on Main Street was for sale, he and business partner Vince Matinata bought it in 2005 for $150,000.
He then recruited his son Nick, a Charlotte restaurateur who started LaVecchia’s Steaks and Seafood in uptown Charlotte in 1996. Together they renovated the police station and opened Old Stone Steak House in 2007.
“That was the start of it,” said Richard LaVecchia, who now lives with his wife in a condominium above storefronts in a building he renovated on Main Street.
Since Old Stone Steakhouse, Richard and Nick LaVecchia have opened nearly a dozen other businesses in Gaston County.
The father and son also plan to open two restaurants this year in King’s Mountain. Also in the works is Nick’s Steak and Taphouse, which is scheduled to open this summer in Gastonia’s historic Webb Theater.
Nick LaVecchia, who also lives in a downtown Belmont condominium, said he’d like to do the same thing in Gaston County towns that he did in Charlotte.
“We were pioneers in uptown Charlotte,” he said. “When we opened LaVecchia there were only seven restaurants uptown. Now there’s over 150.”
Holding out hope
But some parts of Gaston County have more potential than others.
Prestige Ruffled Curtains sits on West Main Avenue in downtown Gastonia.
It’s a rundown and littered corridor. Co-owner Gene Mack’s office and warehouse, inside an old textile mill, is a few doors down from a strip club. Mack’s business manufactures curtains and sells them to home-decorating stores and dealers.
Mack said he’s been at the same location for about six years and is on the verge of having to shut down because business is so bad. Last year he started driving a school bus to make ends meet.
“Ladies don’t want to go to a curtain store when it’s located next to a booby bar,” he said.
Mack said he tried to lease a proper storefront in downtown Gastonia about five years ago but town officials turned him down because they said the machinery he used to make curtains was too noisy.
“That building is still empty,” he said. “I should really just close up shop, but I’m holding on to the hope (that) as the economy improves things will pick back up.”
Hicks said the county is making strides in reinventing itself. Some new developments include Gastonia Technology Park, which was completed late last year.
The 350-acre development is next to Gaston College just off I-85 and 15 miles from Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.
The Gaston County Economic Development Committee developed the park, which is intended to attract technology-based manufacturing companies and draw workers from surrounding counties. Hicks said the county is working with three firms to set up operations at the park this year, but he declined to give details.
“This gives us something to sell,” he said. “It’s hard to do economic development unless you have something to offer.”
He said economic development was starting to gain momentum in the county leading up the recession. In September 2007 National Gypsum Co. began operating a $125 million wallboard plant in Mount Holly, and in January 2008 Dole Food Co. began production at a $70 million vegetable- and salad-packing plant in Bessemer City.
Palenick said the county has introduced property tax grant programs for manufacturing facilities and incentive programs to attract businesses to downtown. Nick LaVecchia credited those incentives with helping to convince him to open his new restaurant in the Webb Theater.
Also expected to help revitalize Gastonia is the new Gastonia Conference Center, scheduled to open in October, Palenick said. The 30,000-square-foot, $10 million facility is between Main Avenue and Franklin Boulevard in downtown Gastonia.
Some say improving access to Gaston County from Mecklenburg County is also critical to growth and development. They say a key part of that is the proposed Garden Parkway.
The Gaston Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization conceived the idea of the 21-mile toll road. It’s designed to provide an east-west connection between I-85 west of Gastonia, crossing over the Catawba River and connecting to Interstate 485 in Mecklenburg County near Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.
The parkway is under review as a toll project by the North Carolina Turnpike Authority. The authority has completed environmental-impact studies and is scheduled to make a decision in the first quarter of 2011. If the project is approved the road could be open by 2010, according to the NCTA.
Hicks called the parkway critical to improving the county’s access and providing better connectivity to the entire region.
“When site planners visit us, we’re not selling Gaston County alone,” he said. “We’re selling the entire Charlotte region, and we consider the Garden Parkway very important to helping improve our integration with the metro area.”
Ted Hall, president of the Montcross Area Chamber of Commerce, said the parkway is key to the future of Gaston County.
“I really see it as vital to addressing our economic needs in the future,” he said. “Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are starting to move west to Gaston County, where it’s less congested. The recession put a lid on that growth, but now we have to do everything we can to prepare for when it starts up again.”
Sam Boykin can be reached at [email protected].