Growth, Grants and Forward Movement: How Ranlo envisions its future
If you’ve driven down I-85 in Gaston County, you’ve undoubtedly passed Exit 21, the hovering green sign reading “Cox Road” and just below, “Ranlo”. This may illicit an “Oh yes, I’ve seen this”, but have you really seen Ranlo?
Jonathan Blanton, the newly minted Town Manager (a first for the town), saw Ranlo as it is, dug around to see how it once was and now, alongside an eager council and a growing populace, looks forward to a bright future, building on history, the town’s landmarks and the seemingly unending potential for new business and growth. It was the established community and hometown feel with potential for the future that brought Blanton from his previous position as City Manager of Hamlet, North Carolina, to Ranlo.
Calls to Blanton at Town Hall are often answered with “It’s a great day in Ranlo!”—a sentiment embodied as Blanton eagerly interacts with residents, visitors and those interested in the town. Ranlo occupies an area of 1.89 square miles, a small drop in the county’s 364 square-mile area. The population of Gastonia’s northeastern neighbor is 3,604 (of the county’s 224,529 as of 2019), a number that has seen a dramatic uptick (63.4%) over the last two decades.
And what accounts for this growth? Blanton says it’s a result of overall area growth.
“We’re right off the highway and a short drive to Charlotte and other county municipalities,” Blanton says. “As the area grows, so do we and we are looking for ways to support and maintain this growth.”
Currently, most towns in the county have a Main Street feel; restaurants and retail share city centers with banks, office buildings and town halls. Ranlo is one of the only cities—aside from Spencer Mountain (.5 square miles) and Dellview (74 acres)—without a downtown, and this is something Blanton wants to see evolve as area interest grows.
In December of 2020, landscape architectural firm Creech & Associates presented a corridor study that resulted in a Downtown Strategic Master Plan following the main thoroughfare of Spencer Mountain Road. After having worked with other area cities like Belmont, Gastonia and Mount Holly, the firm conceptualized a hybrid civic and retail center that could meet the needs of the growing population, while proposing renovations to other area landmarks, leading the way to the types of business growth that would draw in visitors and would give Ranlo residents reason to further frequent their hometown.
Among other things, Ranlo’s master plan conceptualizes pedestrian thoroughfares as it relates to the bordering George Poston Park, Ranlo Park and other area amenities. While the proposed plans will certainly make for economic growth, they also feed into an elevated quality of life for both current and future residents as well as visitors and guests.
Access to enhanced Quality of Life for all demographics
With these ideas in mind, Blanton stays true to the mission of maintaining a quality of life for all residents of the town. There are various possibilities for funding of these projects, with leaders applying for grants, considering bonds and determining what can be paid for out-of-pocket. And among these grants are plans for Community Development Block Grants (CDBG).
These grants can be used for public safety measures, like fire hydrants, public safety measures, infrastructure and neighborhood revitalization. In September of 2020, The Wooten Company submitted a Citizen Participation Plan to the town council.
While the town grows, Blanton has a commitment to representing the needs of all residents, regardless of socioeconomic status. Engaging the public is priority, from virtual meetings to access for persons with disabilities, inviting citizens to take part in the public planning process. Blanton is clear in his desire to avoid “textbook gentrification” which historically has excluded low income residents and people of color, often forcing them from their homes in the aftermath of waves of economic growth, which is why Blanton says this type of grant was his “first order of business”, allowing all citizens a voice, input on growth, and the measured work towards ensuring that this positive growth benefits all citizens.
The Neighborhood Revitalization Grant branch of CDBG focus areas are equitable housing, supporting existing communities and valuing communities and neighborhoods by “enhancing the unique characteristics of all communities by investing in health, safe, and walkable neighborhoods - rural, urban, or suburban,” all of which are lumped together with the robust planning process Blanton and the town council are working towards. With this type of planning, Ranlo’s varying demographics are taken into account and advocated for, while simultaneously creating renderings and proposals that would inevitably lead to the type of economic growth Ranlo has the capability of producing.
Businesses like a brewery (a would-be perfect addition to the Heritage or Rex Mill sites, adding to Gaston County’s expanding brewery and distillery landscape) or expansions of businesses like local favorite Will’s Doggn’ It Deli and Dogs and implementation of coffee shops can create a sense of place, community gathering spots and drive in other businesses eager to capitalize on and contribute to the community created when such strategic plans are implemented.
As the Creech & Associates study identifies, there are three main structures with potential for growth while maintaining the unique community identity of Ranlo that these studies and plans target.
Town Hall has recently become a stand-alone entity, with the recent relocation of the fire department. Up until a few months ago, Town Hall and the fire department have shared space. While this move not only meets the spacial needs for each branch, it paves the way for a rebuilding of Town Hall with the opportunity for further business growth.
According to the corridor study and conceptualization of a new Civic Complex, the expansion of space would not only benefit the beautification of the town center but allow for office space to keep up with the growth of the town. Offices are currently shared, leaving little room for meetings or staff growth, a necessity for a town growing at Ranlo’s rate.
In 1983, Rex Lodge was given to the city by Ti-Caro, formerly Dixie Yarns. The mill, a staple of the town’s economy, donated the building to allow for community meeting space as well as a nominal source of revenue as the city often rents out the building for weddings and other (pre-COVID) larger gatherings.
While the corridor study focuses primarily on the growth of the civic center, there are plans for the growth and renovation of Rex Lodge that can not only accommodate large groups in a safe distance but allow for a new kitchen facility, parking, outdoor cooking and landscape renovations. The plan proposes a size increase of three times the current size, with plenty of acreage on the property to make way for this change.
As a county founded on mills far before Ranlo’s 1963 incorporation, Heritage Mill remains a key asset to the town’s economy, though quite different in its current iteration. For the last decade, a portion of the mill has been occupied by Heritage Mill Antiques & Designer Mall (another Ranlo staple that answers the phone with a positive pleasantry: “It’s a great day at Heritage Mill!”) while directly upstairs is occupied by a NAPA Auto Parts storage facility.
The study proposes the revitalization of the mill into a mixed-use complex of business and retail, with some space repurposed into residential. This proposed growth follows county trends, like with Gastonia’s Trenton Mill’s FUSE district redevelopment as well as Loray Mill's 2013 transformation to loft living.
Possibilities for the future
The approach for growth is built on the history of Ranlo, on celebration of its identity as a small town and the possibility for the town to become, as Blanton says, “incubator-like”, allowing businesses to start in Ranlo and expand into other cities. The desire is for experiences-based amenities and locally owned establishments, maybe even a small grocery store.
Proposed zoning changes hope to entice new businesses while the redevelopment of mills builds on historical value. Ranlo is taking the necessary steps forward to plan for the growth ahead and they do not exist in isolation. The proposed light rail extension will only contribute to growth and, as Blanton says, “what benefits Ranlo benefits the surrounding towns and what benefits the surrounding towns benefits Ranlo.”
Having the connectivity from the town’s hot spots for pedestrian traffic paves the wave for community involvement and a down-home feel, with residents and visitors. Ranlo is in a great position to continue to support the current businesses and residents but also to make giant strides forward and as the newly developed team hits the ground running, Ranlo is sure to be developed well in a way that benefits all its residents and opens the door for an endless breadth of opportunity.