How Creative Placemaking is Transforming Cities Across Gaston County
For decades, the little alley alongside Ribbons Salon in Downtown Cherryville was all but forgotten.
And why not. It’s just a gap between two buildings, barely big enough to fit a Smart Car through. A low row of shrubs took up much of the space. A couple small trees stretched along brick walls, partially blocking windows that had long been bricked over themselves.
In another town, it was the type of alley that may cause folks to skip a step as they passed at night. In Cherryville, a town known for its safe streets, it was mostly just overlooked.
That is, until a local artist named Sherry Bingham got a hold of it.
Donating her time for free, Bingham turned her talent and paint brush to those historic brick walls. She expressed her themes—children, art, and history—in colorful murals and relevant quotes.
Bingham found support from the town. Soon, brick pavers replaced the shrubs, making the space feel larger, lighter. A couple of benches, planters, and steel relief cutouts gave the alley depth and a finished quality.
The completed project is now called the Children’s Artway. It’s been featured by neighboring newspapers and shared on social media—introducing, or reintroducing—Cherryville to countless new people. It’s also a point of pride for the community, a statement of where the town is headed framed in its rich past.
Projects like these are called placemaking: an intentional effort to create public spaces that foster identity, connect communities, improve quality of life, and spark economic growth.
There’s been a movement recently to create a sense of place in all of Gaston’s cities. It’s become an important way to leverage a new era of prosperity while protecting the identity that makes the county great. And it’s happening in ways that are as unique as the towns themselves.
“Across the county there’s a groundswell of placemaking,” says Jeff Cash, Cherryville’s City Manager. “I think every community here has tried to do that for years, but I’ve never seen the focus and vision like I see now.”
What Exactly is Placemaking?
Placemaking entered the vocabulary of economic development professionals back in the 1970s. It’s generally used to categorize city amenities like public parks and community gardens. It addresses issues like walk-ability, access to nature, and community gathering.
In a broader sense, placemaking is about city design that places a premium on the human experience. Wide streets lined with brick planters and pocket parks on unused slivers of land are good examples.
But placemaking often happens outside the pages of city master plans, too. Many of the best projects develop from the imagination of a member of the community. They can be semi-permanent like public art. Or they can be temporary, like the Lantern Festival in Mount Holly.
“Placemaking is a mechanism by which you can have public places that speak to various areas of creativity. They are destinations and can become the pulse of the community,” Danny Jackson, Mount Holly City Manager.
Look around the county, and it’s easy to find examples.
A new mural in Belmont has transformed a parking lot to a showcase for public art.
In Cramerton, Goat Island has become a centerpiece of downtown.
And the beautiful restoration of Dallas’ Courthouse Square makes for a fantastic place to learn the history of this county.
Gastonia's revitalizing downtown, which is seeing positive development activity, is also the recipient of a placemaking grant.
In each case, these projects highlight a unique aspect of their community.
“We no longer want to just build a park with a playground,” says Will Cauthen, Mayor of Cramerton. “Everything we spend funds on needs to reflect the heart of what Cramerton is about.”
What Placemaking Does For a City
If there was a trophy for cities making a comeback after tough times, Cherryville would certainly be in the running.
In 1995, just as all of Gaston was dealing with the textile mill exodus, Cherryville got hit with a devastating economic blow. When Carolina Freight Company's local plant closed, the town of 5,500 residents lost 16,000 jobs almost overnight.
Amazingly, and with credit due to the people that lived there, Cherryville persevered. In the early 2010s, the town was in a new upswing: businesses were growing again and new residents were discovering the fantastic quality of life Cherryville provides.
But downtown Cherryville hadn’t yet caught up with the new trajectory. Two decades of lean times left historic buildings, beautiful relics of a prosperous past, vacant and uncared for.
But with the population and new jobs on the rise, the town was quietly re-establishing itself.
“Cherryville had become Gaston County’s best kept secret,” says Cash. “We had a goldmine in the historic buildings downtown. They were just buried in neglect over the years.”
Since then, the town has made incredible strides to create a sense of place downtown that’s fitting of its community and the growth it is experiencing.
Led by Richard Randall, Cherryville’s Director of Economic Development, they applied for and were accepted into the North Carolina Main Street program on the first try—something that typically takes two or three applications. That gave them access to a host of planning and design resources. “They really teach you how to fish,” Randall explains.
They also had downtown placed on the historic registry, which provides economic benefits like tax breaks and grant funding.
All that work behind the scenes was critical. But it was a piece of public art that really got the community inspired.
“People can’t drive by and see a historic designation,” says Randall. “But when people saw the new mural, it was so colorful and large, they could understand the possibilities.”
That mural is really impressive. Covering an entire two-story brick wall, it depicts a New Year's Eve tradition brought to the area by German settlers that’s still practiced today. It’s a unique part of Cherryville’s community fabric.
Feedback from that project encouraged a string of others. Soon, another mural titled, "Greetings from Cherryville" was added, welcoming visitors with brightly colored scenes of the city's past and present. The repainting of two others, historic Coca-Cola advertisements from the 1940s, was funded directly by the soft drink manufacturer.
A city-backed grant program began helping to update the facades of those beautiful brick downtown buildings. And new private investment is rehabbing them on the inside—possibly even bringing apartments to downtown Cherryville for the first time.
Planning for a massive streetscape improvement project, partially funded by a generous $1 million gift from a former Cherryville resident, is nearly finished. It will completely transform downtown. There’s potential for a new walkway in the plan, making the town an even better place to stroll.
Even the cherry trees are getting an overhaul. The town planted 250 trees last year and plans to put another 250 in the ground this fall. As they grow, their blossoms add to the idyllic charm of the city.
“These trees are an important part of Cherryville,” says Randall. “Last year, during the Cherry Blossom Festival, I saw at least 50 people taking pictures of the cherry tree outside my office. There were probably a lot more I didn’t see.”
While placemaking projects like these greatly improve the quality of life for their residents, they also have direct economic impact.
A study from 2010 found that three factors—openness, beauty, and social gathering spaces—were key to fostering attachment to a place. And the more attached a community was, the higher their GDP, the study noted.
Placemaking helped insulate communities against the last recession. Neighborhoods that had more placemaking activities experienced half the average price decline from their early 2000s peak.
And towns that invest in improved walk-ability see home values increase by thousands of dollars.
“People have choices in where they spend their time and money,” says Belmont’s City Manger Adrian Miller. “So making places feel welcoming, inviting, safe, and fun can help guide people to our town’s businesses.”
“Placemaking is a way to connect the community to where they live, work and play; it even helps to build pride and awareness within the community,” Kim George, President / CEO, Gaston Arts Council
When you have time, take a stroll through downtown and check out the Children’s Artwalk. Try a burger at the Shake Shop and an ice cream at the drug store. If you time it right, go for the Cherry Blossom Festival or the Very Cherry Who-ville Festival on Main Street.
Even with all they’ve done already, Cherryville still has an exciting list of projects that will continue to make their downtown a place visitors want to see and residents are proud to show. You can bet it won’t stay a secret for long.