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  • Rob Glover

The Upside of Gaston’s Outside: Gaston County’s Outdoor Recreation Economy is in full Bloom

It’s a typically crisp, Carolina March morning. Paul Geist bounds up the final steps to crest Pinnacle Mountain, one of two peaks in Crowders Mountain State Park.

Despite being out of breath, it is an 800 foot climb from the parking lot after all, his steps are sure and light. Geist, an ultra runner with several 100-mile race finishes under his belt, has run this trail dozens, maybe hundreds of times. It’s the closest mountain to his home near uptown Charlotte.

“There’s nowhere else in this area with vertical trails like Crowders,” he says.

He’s not alone.

Over 800,000 hikers, runners, and climbers visit the state park on Gaston County’s western edge every year to take advantage of its rugged, mountainous terrain.

Looking down on the winding stairs at Crowders Mountain State Park
Over 300 stairs mark the final climb to the top of Crowders Mountain.

Way on the other side of the county, where the Catawba River runs smooth and straight, the U.S. National Whitewater Center bookends Gaston. Nearly one million people visit the center every year.

Mountains to the west. River to the east. Situated between two of the most visited outdoor adventure destinations in North Carolina. And so close to uptown Charlotte.

Gaston County is in a unique position to take advantage of a surprisingly large outdoor recreation economy.

Just how big is that economy?

In 2017, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, the U.S. outdoor recreation economy accounted for $887 billion in consumer spending, generating 7.6 million jobs.

Just in North Carolina, that spending was $28 billion, bringing the state $1.3 billion in tax revenue.

The outdoor recreation ripple effect

Yoga instructor LeShea Perkins stands with her paddle board at Tailrace Marina
LeShea Perkins with her paddle board at Trailrace Marina. Perkins teaches stand up paddle board yoga from the marina each summer. Credit: LeShea Perkins

LeShea Perkins owns The Yoga Room on South New Hope Road in Gastonia. For the past couple of years, she’s been introducing people to the benefits of SUP (stand up paddleboard) yoga.

“SUP yoga is a great way to get on the water and have fun while increasing balance, coordination, core stability, strength, and endurance.” she says. “It’s an outdoor activity anyone can enjoy.”

Perkins launches her summer SUP yoga classes from Tailrace Marina in Mt Holly, which rents stand up paddleboards (as well as kayaks, canoes, and pontoon boats.)  The marina shares a parking lot with J. Peters Grill and Bar, where people often go to eat on their outdoor patio after a day on the water.

This is the ripple effect of the outdoor economy. One person visits to do one activity, which leads to them spending time, and money, with several businesses.

Those ripples travel across Gaston County.

Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Belmont lures over 200,000 people each year for a peaceful stroll among its blooms and bushes. It’s one of the 30 most visited attractions in the state.

In Lowell, the mountain bike trail system at George Poston Park is “local-famous” for its ability to shed water, making it one of a few available places to ride after rain in this area.

Last year, the park debuted a pump track, a short dirt bike track with bumps and berms, at Bike Fest. The event brought several hundred riders.

And then there’s the Spamerton road cycle route— its name a mash-up of Spencer Mountain and Cramerton. The 35-mile tour-de-Gaston brings riders from all around the Charlotte area to tackle its hilly, country roads.

All those riders, runners, hikers, fishermen and picnickers support retail stores like South Main Cycles in Belmont and The Great Outdoors in Cherryville. They buy gas, they stop for a beer, and they eat dinner here.

And we hope they’ll spend the night.

Gaston County Commissioners recently approved a proposal to build a small collection of vacation cottages about two miles from Crowders Mountain. The “vacation village” will provide a convenient place to stay after a long day on the trails, making it easier for people to visit from farther away.

More visitors, more days in the area, more money spent at local businesses.

Municipalities like Cramerton are getting in on the outdoor action.

On Saturday, May 11th, they’ll host the 3rd annual Goat Island Games. Named after the small island created by a split in the South Fork River on which Cramerton has built a wonderful park and playground, the games will include fishing and disc golf tournaments as well as a 5k race and kayak time trial.

“Events such as Goat Island Games and hosting National Trails Day continue to be an outstanding way to bring people to Cramerton.” says David Pugh, Cramerton’s Town Manager. “A great example is when Cramerton hosted National Trails Day last year at Goat Island Park. Of the over 1,600 who attended, 70% were from outside of Gaston County. This is great for our community and especially our businesses when so many people from outside the region bring their revenue to our eateries and shops!”

Bike Fest. Goat Island Games. National Trails Day. These events raise the quality of life in Gaston, and bring more visitors who spend more money at local businesses.

The ripple effect.

Build it and they will come

Projects across the county look to tap into this growing outdoor economy.

County Commissioners just passed a first reading of an ordinance that would allow beer and wine sales for select events at George Poston and Dallas Parks. If passed, the move would likely increase event attendance.

Back on Catawba River, the Belmont Rowing Center is making a name for itself as a premier training center for competitive rowers and a welcoming place for novice rowers to try out the sport.

“The Catawba River is perfect for rowing,” says Cindy White, President of the BRC. “The Gaston Climate allows for year round training, which is both a competitive advantage and a great draw for recruiting college teams from colder locales.”

The center offers a long list of programs, including youth summer camps and lessons as well as adult beginner rowing and “sculling” classes. Soon, the Belmont Rowing Center will expand into their new 13.5 acre home just down river from its current digs near York Chester Brewing. The plan includes a 3.5 acre park and facilities to make it even easier to get on the water.

A few miles upriver from the Belmont Rowing Center, Mount Holly is eyeing a way to tap into the flow of visitors at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.

Crowds watch climbers compete on the deep water solo wall at the USNWC
Crowds gather to watch a climbing competition at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.

They are currently conducting a feasibility study to see how they could build a bicycle and pedestrian bridge to span the Catawba. It would connect to a stretch of greenway that’s due to open soon near Tuckaseege Park. That greenway, in turn, connects to downtown Mount Holly.

The result would be a wonderfully unique experience. Visitors could ride their bikes from the Whitewater Center, have dinner, a beer, and maybe even one day stay the night in downtown Mount Holly.

Specific numbers on the impact of outdoor recreation in Gaston County aren’t readily available. But tourism, as a whole, brings over $250 million here according to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. And that number doesn’t include the spend by visitors from Charlotte (tourism dollars are calculated on visitors from more than 50 miles away).

People are already visiting Gaston County in large numbers to find an outdoor escape. New outfitters, guides, lodging and services will follow. And they’ll bring more visitors. And more dollars into the economy. And the ripple will continue.

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