Rekindling the Love of Bessemer City's Historic Downtown
In August, we told the story of the downtown transformation happening in Cherryville through community-led placemaking. That town is one of three in Gaston County that has achieved the competitive North Carolina Main Streets Designation. Bessemer City is another. Through guidance from that program, smart public investment, and a lot of dedicated work by the city and local volunteers, Gaston’s “City with a Heart” is poised to take advantage of a rekindled love for America’s historic small towns.
Well-positioned for a growing trend
There’s a black and white photo of Bessemer City’s charming downtown hanging on the wall of Joshua Ross’ office. In the image that dates back to the 1940s, you can clearly see the raised rail line that runs through the city’s center.
On either side of the tracks are wide streets lined with handsome brick buildings, a legacy of Bessemer’s textile mill founders. At the edge of the photo is a row of parking spots, each filled with the black, curved-trunk cars of the era.
Ross — who serves as Bessemer City’s Economic Development Officer — references that photo when he talks about the town’s mid-century past.
“Every storefront was full,” he explains. “There were grocery stores, drug stores. Even three theaters right downtown.”
Of course, Ross doesn’t remember these days first hand; he’s a few decades too young for that. But as a lifelong resident of Bessemer City, he’s heard the stories.
Back then, downtown was where you went to buy everything from flour to flowers to floral print dresses. It’s where you went to see the latest movie, get the latest gossip, and gather for special events.
Then, in the 1970s and ‘80s, things changed. Not just in Bessemer City, but all over the country.
Huge shopping malls and big-box stores grew out of the farmland on the outskirts of these small towns. They had food courts and movie theaters; they even had mini-golf and ice-skating rinks. They replaced downtown as the center of commerce and community.
That shift created challenges for small town economic development officers like Ross.
Downtowns lost their foot traffic and with it, their shops. Small towns lost their businesses and with it, their tax base.
Without a purpose, those elegant, historic buildings on America’s Main Streets were left vacant and often neglected. Without resources, small towns couldn’t improve infrastructure.
The tides are turning again. Retail shopping has moved online. At the same time, there’s a renewed interest in the experience of authenticity and charm historic downtowns offer that is spanning generations. Walkable town centers with a real history have become prized commodities for growing families and retirees alike.
In other parts of the region, developers look to manufacture these village-like communities from scratch. Bessemer City, like towns across Gaston County, has done it authentically, curating the foundation of their idyllic downtown for more than a century.
Now, those broad, charming streets and historic brick buildings from that black and white photo are the foundation upon which the town has been preparing for its future. A future intentionally designed to provide experiences that can’t be found at a shopping mall or online store.
Rethinking experience as the key to growth
Every fourth Saturday from May through September, classic cars of all shapes and sizes converge in downtown Bessemer City. Toe-tapping music washes over a crowd numbering in the thousands, while the beer garden pours brews perfectly chilled to counter summer’s warmest days.
The Summer Concert & Cruise-In Series has become a mainstay in Gaston County’s packed lineup of street parties. It brings people from all over the region to Bessemer City, where they eat, drink, and get an introduction to the town’s idyllic city center.
The Series became possible after the town tripled the size of Centennial Park in 2016, one of the first projects Bessemer City completed after gaining its North Carolina Main Street Designation. The Main Street Program is an intentional effort by the state to help small towns revitalize their downtowns.
Just getting into the program is tough. There’s a competitive application process every two years and only a few towns out of more than a dozen are chosen. Once in, the town has access to a range of support options including building facade design, planning, tax incentive, and grant guidance. The Program also provides ongoing education and networking opportunities that are critical to a town’s development.
It’s a lot of work, but Bessemer City saw near-instant results when they began working in the Program. The park project won an award for the Best Outdoor Space Improvement from the Main Street Program the year it was completed. It also had a significant effect on the town.
“Before the park was expanded, we had maybe two events every year,” says Ross. “Now we have 14. And there are at least two businesses that opened downtown due to the increased foot traffic.”
In an economy that’s shifting to online shopping, it’s experiences like this that are key in driving people to your commercial center, says Ross. That’s why he encourages service-based businesses, those that require in-person visits, to include some retail sales. A hair salon, for example, might create space for beauty products. An animal hospital could add a mini pet goods store. It’s a way of increasing foot traffic and encouraging extra visits to local businesses. It’s also a forward-thinking way to create a robust downtown economy — a way that’s catching on in Bessemer City.
“We’re starting to see people reinvent what they do with store fronts,” he says. “They have to take into account how the economy has shifted.”
Centennial Park was a significant investment for the town and it’s paying off handsomely. Just across those raised railroad tracks is another investment. One that’s 135 years in the making but could change the economic fortunes of Bessemer City overnight.
Investing in the past to pay dividends for the future
Osage Mill has been a sleeping giant in Bessemer City’s streetscape for nearly 25 years. It’s a 260,000 square foot (about 4.5 football fields) brick edifice that anchors the eastern edge of downtown.
Its history is analogous with that of Gaston County. Built in 1896, it was one of six mills that fueled Bessemer’s boom. When textiles waned, it was taken over by a tool manufacturer. That business left and the historic mill has been vacant since 1995.
The Main Street Program emphasizes historic preservation as an integral component of good development. So Bessemer City invested in getting a historic district designation for their downtown. The designation opened up the potential for state and federal tax credits which in turn opened up the redevelopment of several historic buildings, Osage Mill included.
Work on the mill project is scheduled to start this spring. According to Ross, the redeveloped mill is expected to house 171 apartments and 30,000 square feet of retail and community space. There also exists the potential for a business incubator, shared kitchen, and artist spaces. It will most likely spur other investments in areas immediately surrounding the mill.
Ross expects the project to add 400 to 500 new residents to Bessemer City’s downtown — an 8% increase in the town's total population. That injection of foot traffic means more customers for local store and restaurant owners. With the population increase comes a growing workforce and new businesses that will give all those charming brick buildings a new purpose.
The Osage project has already attracted $38 million in private investment, notes Ross. “That’s a perfect example of how a little bit of public investment can bring a lot of private development.”
Expanding the park, adding new events, and creating space for artists is a boon for the quality of life in Bessemer City. It’s also an integral part of an interesting relationship between public services and private business growth.
The public-private synergy
Today, Joshua Ross is giving me a tour of downtown. We’re standing across the road from his office building on a long section of greenspace that abuts the railroad track and stretches nearly the length of downtown. It’s known as the Uptown Park, and it widens as the tracks turn north away from town.
He points to the sidewalk and talks about his vision for a pedestrian walkway that will meander among trees planted back in 2000. It would create “the kind of place people want to just stroll,” he says. The whole masterplan for the Uptown Park includes landscaped and plaza areas as well as street art.
A little further down, Ross points out the artwork hanging in Centennial Park. It’s created by local artists and replaced each season. Next up is a huge white wall facing the edge of downtown. Given our current topic of discussion — public art — the wall looks like a huge canvas ripe for a mural painting. And that’s just what it is.
“We have a theme for the mural that will go there, but it’s a secret for now. We want it to be a surprise.”
Finally, we reach a small underpass. It’s one of two that connects the bifurcated sides of downtown. “We’ve been talking to an artist about a design for the walls,” Ross notes. “Eventually this one will be for pedestrians since it can only accommodate one car at a time anyway.”
Amenities like these — public art, communal spaces, walkability, and streetscapes — have become an important factor in recruiting new businesses to downtown and beyond.
“Ten to 20 years ago, businesses only looked for access to a rail line and available workforce,” says Ross. “Now, their top 10 requirements for moving or expanding their business into a community always includes quality of life and diverse housing options. It helps them attract the right workforce.”
As new businesses open in town, they help create a commercial tax base that takes the burden off its residents while providing new resources for the town. “Then the city has the resources to build parks, sidewalks, and infrastructure; things that make you proud of where you live,” says Ross.
These improvements then attract more businesses and the upward spiral continues.
“Downtown development is different than other types of economic development,” Ross notes. “It factors in community development, historic preservation, and design. So many other elements.”
Achieving this synergy requires deep cooperation between town officials and the community. Every Main Street Program participant is required to create a volunteer board. They act as resident representatives that suggest and guide projects. That way, efforts support the entire community.
“Our board puts in a lot of time and energy,” says Ross.
We conclude our walk with a brief stop in front of a building near Ross’s office. At its front are three small windows. In decades past, moviegoers would line up here to watch the next hit film.
A peek inside the windows reveals workers preparing a wood floor. Soon, this building will have a new tenant and Bessemer residents will have a new reason to come downtown.
Scenes like this one play out all over downtown Bessemer City. It’s a tangible momentum that’s bringing more services, shopping, and entertainment to town so residents don’t have to travel far to get them. There will be more opportunities to work for, or create, entirely new businesses.
It also means that those wonderful, historic buildings get a new life. The heart of “The City with a Heart” will get to maintain its historic character and become the center of the community once again.
Cover image: M Howe Photography