Small Town Charm, Growth & Diversity — this is what makes Gaston County home
Whether you still live where you’re from or you’ve since moved on, there is a bit of pride in calling somewhere “home”. There is a sense of security and nostalgia in knowing the ins-and-outs of your town and the surrounding area. From hole-in-the-wall restaurants and coffee shops to unique shopping experiences or outdoor amenities making for the best possible staycation, having your own distinct stomping grounds speaks to your identity which is why, as a 2011 article in The Atlantic says, one of the first things we ask a person is “Where are you from?”
I grew up in Kings Mountain, a town that crosses between both Cleveland and Gaston Counties, the backroads of which I still know by heart. Lake Montonia Road (before the days of Veronét Vineyards) heading towards both Kings and Crowders Mountains was a heavily trod path for me as I navigated my 2001 Ford Escape through the hills and curves as though they were an extension of my person.
Drives in the back of my family’s Ford Bronco (we were strictly a Ford family in those days) to Riverview Inn just across the Catawba River to see Captain Windy for hushpuppies and their famous coleslaw, or to Lineberger’s Fish Camp to fill our bellies with perch and our pockets with candy on Friday nights are fresh in my memory, though it’s been 25 years or more. My parents would look away as my grandmother stealthily wrapped rolls in napkins and put them in her purse for later.
Afterwards we’d drive to Krispy Kreme to watch the doughnuts dip and flip in the oil, following the path of the Tim Burton-esque contraption as our parents sipped coffee beneath the glowing red “Hot and Ready” sign, reminding us to keep our hands off the windows.
Mary Jo’s Cloth Store (then in Gaston Mall) held the fabric of my Easter outfits and Eastridge Mall was our pillar of school shopping— Dillard's and Belk when my mother would take me, transitioning to Gap and PacSun in my high school years. My friends and I would commit our afternoons to spending all the money we’d earned at after school jobs, traveling to the newly-opened Best Buy for CDs and DVDs. Winters were spent driving through McAdenville as we listened to Christmas music and compared each year’s lights display to the previous years.
Though things have changed around the county since then, with shopping shifting to local makers online and within the various downtowns, Gaston County remains poised for progress, shifting with the times to fit the needs of its residents.
Both Gaston Mall and, later, Mary Jo’s have closed with great fanfare to make way for larger developments. Eastridge Mall is now home to what U.S. Developments calls a “bold vision” as developers seek to transform the 800,000 square-foot property to a multi-use space with retail, hotel, and multi-family housing options, transforming the area with visions of the future.
These changes are made possible as Gaston County’s population rises and interest in the area, both for tourism and relocation, steadily increases. The 364 square miles making up the county is now home to a little over 224,500 residents, up over 27% since 2000, with the percentage varying wildly within each of Gaston County’s 13 unique municipalities and towns. The pride felt in these municipalities, like Mount Holly who has grown 67.7% since 2000 and the uniquely small Dellview—population 13— pours over and the county is quickly making a name for itself.
County seat, Gastonia, is up to over 78,000 people (a 8.25% increase from 2010) and is the 13th largest town of North Carolina’s 532 and, despite its growth, new residents can still enjoy the quaintness offered in Gastonia’s growing downtown and surrounding areas.
Billie Oates moved to Gastonia in December of 2018 from Stallings and was drawn in by the home prices and small town feel.
“After viewing houses in my old community and comparing prices for the same size home and lot, there was a 100 thousand dollar difference on average,” Oates says of her experience. Home prices vary within the region and Oates observation hits on a key point of the county: there are housing options for most every price point.
A lover of walking trails and mountains, Oates is in good company, with both Spencer and Crowders Mountains nearby. A fan of the Gaston Grizzlies, Oates is enjoying the renovations of downtown along with the development of FUSE district coming to fruition and the addition of a new minor league team, the Gastonia Honey Hunters, honoring Gaston County's first freed formerly enslaved person, Ransom Hunter, who later went on to be the County's first formerly enslaved person to own land.
The growth and excitement is not reserved exclusively for the larger towns; in stark contrast and with an identity all its own is Ranlo, a town of 3,604, lying just on the outskirts of Gastonia has seen a 63.4% population increase since 2000.
This growth propelled the city’s decision to bring on Jonathan Blanton who was sworn in as the town’s first city manager April 9, 2020. Blanton brings with him great excitement for the possibilities of Ranlo, often greeting calls to his Town Hall office “It’s a great day in Ranlo!”
Moving from Hamlet, North Carolina, to take on this new role, Blanton has most enjoyed the diversity of his new town. “We have people living here from all different parts of the county and the world,” something Blanton notes is unique for such a small town, adding, “Our long term residents have a spirit of welcome and inclusivity that I have really appreciated and enjoyed.”
This diversity is represented within their town council, three of whom are transplants to Ranlo. Both Commissioner Jamie Fowler (from Oklahoma) and Commissioner Katie Cordell (from California) found their ways to Ranlo through job relocations, while Robin Conner moved from nearby Mount Holly, and all have taken an investment in the town in choosing to serve in a civic capacity.
Ranlo's population increase has led to 800 new homes in what is collectively called the Mountain View subdivision, which includes the Woodside and Spencer Heights subdivisions. Home prices throughout the town range from the $130,000's to $300,000. Locally owned spots like Will’s Doggn' It Deli, where Blanton has lunch a few times per week, and Ms. D’s Auto Service have been among Blanton’s favorites and drive a good portion of the town's economy.
Being so close to the highway (Ranlo sits just off Exit 21 from Interstate 85) allows access not only to nearby Charlotte but to other towns in the County, like Belmont (who has seen a 48% population increase since 2000) and Mount Holly.
Among those making the move to Belmont is Marley Ferris who moved from Asheville in June 2020 after looking to move to the area for about six months. The initial draw was to be close to family and friends who were once a few hours away and now, when looking at her future, Ferris sees herself claiming Gaston County as home.
The town of Belmont has a special draw for Ferris after coming from the more densely populated Asheville. Like Oates, she loves the small town feel while being close to both Charlotte and Gastonia for bigger city experiences. In addition to this she adds, “I also love the southern charm of the area in general.”
This charm is shown in various capacities throughout the county. Belmont is home to Nellie’s Southern Kitchen, whose bragging rights (aside from great cocktails and southern cuisine) is that it’s owned by the infamous Jonas family and is a big draw for locals and visitors alike.
A block away you’ll find String Bean, heralding dishes like The Green Monster (fried green tomatoes stacked with pimento cheese and spicy house-made ranch dressing) and Chicken Gnocchi (their take on chicken-n-dumplin's), along with a butcher shop, an expansive selection of regional beers and a vast selection of award-winning wines. Retail spaces like Meraki Flower Shop and Belmont’s Specialty Foods add to the charm and charisma that garnered the gaze of the national eye.
Belmont has earned the distinction of “One of the Coolest Suburbs in America” by Apartment Therapy, with downtown having what they called “the old charm of a movie set, especially when city hall is lit up for Christmas” while Niche.com calls Belmont “one of the best places to live in North Carolina.”
2020 saw two breweries open second locations in downtown—Huntersville’s Primal Brewery and Matthews’ Jekyll & Hyde—and watched as long-standing favorite, Sammy’s Pub, opened a second location in nearby Dallas.
Ashley Mason, a moderator of the private Facebook group Modern Mount Holly, moved with her family to Gaston County from Charlotte in 2015. She and her husband, Dexter, have always enjoyed the Charlotte beer community (Ashley travels the 20 minutes for her local knitting group brewery meet-ups) and have found the Gaston County beer community to be an excellent extension of what Charlotte has to offer. The couple enjoys The Summit Beer Shop in Mount Holly and stays up on other new openings in the county, like EXP Craft Brewing (Gastonia) and District 8's South Fork Brew Project (Belmont).
Like so many, the cost of living was a big draw for the Masons and, like others, it’s the community and kindness that keeps them happy here, ready for the growth, potential and diversity of a county expanding its identity.
As Gaston County continues to inevitably draw in eager new residents and long-time residents share space with newcomers, as they so eagerly do in Ranlo, Gaston County is poised for possibility. Residents get to know their roads and restaurants, they get involved in local government. Towns get noticed on both local and national lists, shining in the limelight as their stories are told.
Though the data gives a gauge for where the county has been and where it is going, the people who have been here for decades, those who recently moved and those who will soon make this unique county their home, are more than a number, the towns more than a ranking on a list; Gaston County is a place where people can sit back, rest easy and proudly answer the age-old question of “Where are you from?” with “This is home.”