Historic Downtown Gastonia Enjoys a Renaissance
A century ago, downtown Gastonia was the city's heart, soul and center, where shopping and entertainment were combined with growth and business.
But that vibrancy faded over the years as people moved to the suburbs and strip malls, and shopping complexes usurped the downtown hub. Now all of that is changing as Gastonia revitalizes its 49-acre historic downtown business district with 1.1 million square feet of mainly historic buildings.
The city began by investing $6.3 million in renovating the 1911 Gaston County Courthouse, which now houses the James B. Garland Municipal Business Center, a one-stop government service facility.
In addition to retail shops opening up new storefronts, plans are under way to restore new life to a former textile factory. At nearly 600,000 square feet, the Loray Mill was the largest factory of its kind when it was built in 1902. The six-story building is now owned by Preservation North Carolina, with plans for transforming the space and the historic mill housing surrounding it into residential lofts and condominiums, with a charter school, retail shops and offices.
And locals are taking advantage of those historic buildings, too. When it was time for Dodie Huffman to expand her business, Image Gallery, she saw a lot of potential in the 1922 historic Kirby Building.
“I saw it and fell in love with it,” she says. When it was available, she jumped at her chance.
Now the 6,000 square feet houses a gallery downstairs, studios, movie screening room to view pictures and a gorgeous spiral staircase.
“We hold events here and people come in the building and are amazed and never thought this would be downtown,” she says.
Another couple has so much faith in the growth of downtown and all that it could mean for Gastonia, they each opened their own business within months of each other.
First to open was Ella Childe’s GasPump Coffee Co. Childe, who dreamed of opening her own business, was looking for a job but dreaded the grind of a typical 9-5. With the support of her husband, she went for it.
“We see a lot of potential here,” Childe says of the area. “There was never a question in my mind it needed to be downtown. For me it is just as much about the potential that is here. I really think it is on the cusp of being a very cool place.”
Her husband, Brad Freeman, was so inspired by his wife and downtown Gastonia that he left his longtime career in corporate banking to open Freeman’s Pub, and authentic Irish pub that has been packed from the moment the first pint was poured.
“Things needed to start changing,” he says of his motivation. “We were tired of people talking about the changes needed downtown, but nothing changed. So instead of talking about it, we put both feet in and all the cards on the table.”
And it seems like their leap of faith is going to pay off. Restored buildings, attractive storefronts, entertainment, specialty retail, cultural events and pedestrian-friendly walkways and streets are gradually changing the public’s perception about downtown Gastonia.
And Gastonia’s downtown area is attracting consumers from outside the city for a more laid-back shopping experience, says Rachel Bagley, director of communications and marketing for the city of Gastonia.
“Retail is really bustling,” Bagley says. “People come from Shelby, Kings Mountain and Charlotte to do shopping that may be too busy elsewhere. The thing I hear people say all the time is that they use Gastonia as the place to come to find the sizes they can’t find. And it’s a little less hectic-ness while shopping.”