April 6 was a good day for Gastonia’s Economic Development Department. The Dymax Corporation announced plans for a $21.5 million facility at the Gastonia Technology Park. The company makes adhesives and coatings for manufacturers using a high-tech ultraviolet curing process that is safer for employees and the environment.
And what’s good for the Economic Development Department is great for the City, says department director Kristy Crisp. “Our general focus is bringing in new investment dollars to Gastonia,” she says. “We want to retain existing businesses and increase our tax base. The Dymax announcement is a big part of what we do, and those new projects are fun.”
Since the department was created in 2017, Crisp says they have had plenty of good days. “We have had a lot of great things line up in the past 24 months,” she says. “It’s Gastonia’s turn. It’s our time.” She notes that Gastonia is benefiting from Charlotte’s growth. “Developers are turning toward Gastonia and Gaston County. Our property costs are lower. So we’re seeing a greater demand for more business and housing options to accommodate the influx of people coming to the Charlotte region.”
The three-person Economic Development Department leads the City’s efforts to attract and keep employers. That includes recruiting and nurturing small businesses and retailers, facilitating commercial projects like shopping center redevelopments, and working closely with developers on large-scale City-led projects like FUSE, Loray Mill and the downtown apartment complex known as Center City Crossing.
In addition to Crisp, the director, the department has two economic development specialists. Cody Gibson takes a greater role with retail clients. Tori Stalcup leads efforts with Downtown businesses. But Crisp says the department is too small for much specialization. “We need to be able to always fill in for each other,” she says of her employees. “We all pitch in and it’s pretty seamless.”
Economic Development pays special attention to Gastonia’s Downtown. “That’s because downtowns are really the heart of the community,” Crisp explains. “Downtown has its own personality, so to speak. None of our other economic development projects will succeed if Downtown isn’t healthy.”
The department also plays an active role with the Gastonia Conference Center, overseeing the contract with the management company and managing the facility’s budget.
Struggles caused by COVID-19
Gastonia’s recent growth and economic momentum may be critical as many local businesses cope with lost revenue and unexpected costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. “All of those good things have been lining up for us, and then COVID-19 happened,” Crisp says. “Because we have such good momentum going into it, I am still very positive about the outcome.”
She says all of the large developers who invested money or started construction on major projects in Gastonia are still committed and still moving forward. But most smaller businesses with little or no “rainy day” savings are struggling. “It’s really hurting our small businesses,” Crisp says of the coronavirus shutdowns. “It’s tough watching our small businesses that we’ve worked so hard with, seeing them struggle through this.”
The City is doing what it can to help. Crisp says her department has been informing local businesspeople about various emergency loan and grant programs, even helping them work through the complex process of getting assistance. Stalcup has been working directly with Downtown shops. Employees in the Economic Development Department are on a first-name basis with many local businesspeople. Those strong relationships are proving to be essential in this time of crisis. “This is certainly a tough time to walk through this with them,” Crisp says of Gastonia’s business community. “But we want them to know that we are with them.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic upended our status-quo lives, the Economic Development Department was used to sudden and unexpected changes. “The biggest thing that sets us apart from other City departments is how quickly our world can change every single day,” Crisp says. “Our world is about as unpredictable as it can be.” She says developers work on a very immediate timetable, often calling and asking to meet that day. “That means we are shuffling around our schedules and hustling to get needed information.”
She says it takes a lot of energy to work in her department, fueled by coffee and protected by what she calls “a thick skin.” The stress of juggling many different balls is among the department’s biggest challenges. The sweetest joys, Crisp says, are found in ribbon cuttings, especially when her department has worked closely with a business owner to successfully locate and launch.
Crisp, Gibson and Stalcup are not hitting pause during these unstable times. Gibson has been working with a consultant, diving into data about retail and business trends that are taking shape amidst the economic chaos. “We are tracking the new concepts so we can get ahead of the curve,” Crisp says. “As new trends start to emerge, Gastonia will be positioned to go after some of these concepts. That will help us keep moving forward and rebound as quickly as possible.”
A project that is moving ahead at full force despite the pandemic is FUSE. It’s also Economic Development’s highest-profile initiative. Crisp is quick to point out that the Franklin Urban Sports + Entertainment complex is not just a baseball stadium. “This is an economic development project,” she says.
“When we started talking about a downtown ballpark five or six years ago, City management understood this was not about baseball,” Crisp says. “It’s an investment that serves as a catalyst for private development. The whole concept is about maximizing economic development potential.”
She recalls laying small paper squares and rectangles on top of a large aerial map of the site, looking for the best ways to configure existing buildings and open space. They wanted to attract new development to each of the spaces on the map and to fuse those developments together to provide new opportunities, new excitement and an economic stimulus for Gastonia.
The FUSE masterplan is working extremely well. “Now the stadium is under construction and we have been able to recruit private development partners for the pads,” Crisp says. “We’re moving forward to get them to closing and construction.” The stadium is like a bullseye at the center, and she says new development will expand outward like concentric circles, filling in the now-empty spaces between FUSE and Downtown. “It was fun to have the groundbreaking last fall,” Crisp says about the FUSE stadium. “It’s going to be even more fun to watch the ribbon cutting in 2021. FUSE keeps growing. It’s amazing!”
Cheerleaders for Gastonia
It takes collaborative effort by many people to attract and keep quality businesses. A three-person City department cannot do it all. “We are fortunate to have tremendous partners such as the Chamber of Commerce, Gaston County Economic Development Commission, Greater Gaston Development Corporation and ElectriCities,” Crisp says. “But at the end of the day, Gastonia is the only one looking out for Gastonia.”
She says City employees – in every department – also play an essential role. “The three of us in Economic Development, our role is being cheerleaders and advocates for our community,” Crisp says. “I’d like each City employee to realize that they have a part in that.”
She says every time a City employee interacts with others, they leave an impression. And those impressions can help bolster our community. “Each City employee represents Gastonia, so each employee is involved in economic development in some way. We all have a chance to be advocates for our community and do things that promote positivity,” Crisp says.
Crisp and those in her department remain positive. She acknowledges COVID-19 will leave lasting changes in the business community. Yet she is optimistic about Gastonia’s resiliency. She says the City is fortunate to have many major transformational projects like FUSE, Center City Crossings and the recent Dymax announcement. Economic Development has built strong relationships with owners of local mom-and-pop shops and leaders of international corporations. As Crisp puts it: “We’re going to keep doing everything we can to keep promoting our city, keep building on our momentum and keep growing!”