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  • Rob Glover

Trains Build Gaston's Past, Present, and Future

On any given Friday night, in anything close to tolerable weather, lively conversation flutters and mingles around the outdoor stone patio at Station--an ever evolving bar/restaurant/coffee/bike shop concept in downtown Belmont.

Occasionally the chatter pauses, overpowered by the clickety-clack of locomotive wheels rolling along the the tracks that run directly next to the patio and bifurcate the town.

Neither the rail-adjacent location nor the name of the establishment is coincidental. The original occupant of the historic building Station now occupies was a passenger rail depot that operated in the first half of the 20th century. It was built to connect the cities west of the Catawba with a growing Charlotte.

Like all of Gaston County, present day Belmont is full of reminders that its past was heavily influenced by train travel.

And now, it seems, so is its future.

On Feb 27th, the Charlotte Area Transit System’s governing board voted unanimously to approve a plan to bring the Lynx east-west light rail corridor, known as the Silver Line, into Belmont. The commission also approved a study to explore extending the Silver Line farther west into Gastonia.

It will be a decade or more before the first commuters board trains from the Belmont station, currently planned at Highway 74 and Park Street. But there’s already plenty of talk about the impact the Silver Line could have on Gaston County.

“We envision multi-story, multi-use buildings along Wilkinson that bring new companies, new employees, and new energy to this corridor.” says Adrian Miller, Belmont’s City Manager. “The Silver Line will be viewed as an amenity that puts Gaston County at a competitive advantage over our neighbors in the region for recruiting businesses and talent.”

Helping Gaston business take flight

It’s a shorter trip to the Charlotte Douglas Airport from Belmont’s new TechWorks facility than it is from Bank of America’s Corporate Center in uptown Charlotte.

And that’s a pretty big deal.

Connectivity to major airports will be essential for businesses and communities to stay competitive. Roughly half of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. are located within 10 miles of an airport. And businesses of all sizes are less likely to relocate if they made their home near an airport.

“The airport is such a benefit to businesses and homeowners in Gaston County who rely on travel, shipping, logistics and so much more,” commented Steve D’Avria, CEO of the Gaston Regional Chamber of Commerce. “The eastern and central areas of Gaston County are closer to the airport than most places in Charlotte.

Maybe it’s the river that makes this surprising to many. Or maybe it’s the county line. But the fact that Belmont is the nearest city center to North Carolina’s busiest airport is often overlooked.

The newly approved Lynx Silver Line brings commuter trains back to Gaston County. Image courtesy of the Charlotte Area Transit System

The new light rail project will shine a light on Gaston County’s unique position. The current proposal places Belmont’s light rail station just two stops from the airport’s front door. And it’s the only town with a direct connection to both Uptown Charlotte and the Airport.

The ease of moving people across the river to the airport and beyond further strengthens Gaston County’s value proposition to both businesses and work talent considering a move.

“A light rail line with only a few stops between Belmont and the CLT airport will make Belmont an attractive location for companies needing such proximity to air travel,” Miller added.

Like much of Gaston County, South End Charlotte was once dependant on the textile industry for its economic viability. When the mills left, the money dried up. And the people left.

Today, the area just south of uptown Charlotte is one of the most vibrant success stories in the region. And much of this resurgence is a direct result of investment spurred by light rail. In the four years after announcing the SouthEnd Transit Station Area Plan, nearly $2 billion dollars of private development blossomed along the Lynx Blue Line corridor.

“The light rail along the South Boulevard and North Tryon Street corridors has proven its ability to provide economic development opportunities, and I see no reason why it would not have a similar impact to the Wilkinson Boulevard corridor,” Adrian Miller, City Manager for the City of Belmont.

Creating opportunity and choice for Gaston County Residents

It's 5:30 on a chilly March afternoon in uptown Charlotte. The train comes to an abrupt halt and Daniel Eyrich steps on, careful not to bump other riders with his laptop bag. When he first rode the Lynx Blue line in 2011, the trains were empty. Now, seven years later, Eyrich scans the car for one of only a few empty seats.

“The light rail was a great option for me to avoid the traffic hassles and get a little bit of walking exercise,” Eyrich says. “Rather than feeling the stress of traffic lights and gridlock, I got the relief of sitting back and enjoying some music or a podcast and a short walk.”

Riding the train became a habit for Eyrich. So much so that when it came time to buy a home he chose one a block-and-a-half from Bland station in Dilworth. “Having an easy walk to a light rail station was one of three must haves when I started looking to buy a condo,” he says.

It’s Tuesday, and Eyrich is meeting a friend for half priced wine at Dandelion Market. So after a quick stop at home to change, he hops back on the train for uptown. “I use the train a lot outside of my work commute,” he says. “I meet friends for dinner. I have access to movies, coffee shops, plays, concerts, and sport events. All from the train.”

This is the kind of choice the forthcoming Silver Line brings to Gaston County. Choice in how to travel, and choice in where to shop and eat. Because the development that happens along a light rail line isn’t just office space. It’s restaurants and breweries. It’s retail shops, bike share stations, movie theaters, and grocery stores.

“The Silver Line will directly connect Belmont with the Charlotte airport, Uptown Charlotte, and UNCC, providing opportunities to travel to these destinations without having to drive or park there,” says Miller.

It’s also more, really good jobs.

Companies that value transit options need a vibrant, highly trained workforce. They bring jobs that offer higher pay and bigger challenges. These are the type of jobs which will help keep the next generation of Gaston’s workforce in the county and the region, instead of potentially heading across the country to find opportunity.

And it’s economic benefit for homeowners.

A 2017 study concluded that the value of homes located near St. Paul Minnesota’s newly completed Green Line increased by $13.70 per square foot. Other studies also find a general correlation between new light rail projects and increased home values.

More businesses, higher paying jobs, and a strong housing market increases tax base. That means the tax load is shared across more payers. And it means more of the things that already make Gaston a great place to live.

“According to the Charlotte Area Transit System, the South corridor adjacent to the Blue line has experienced exponential explosive growth, increasing development, industry, and property values,” says D’Avria. “This increase supports our public safety, school system, roads, and a quality of life.”

There’s still much to figure out about the newest addition to the light rail plan. How can we leverage the rebuild of Wilkinson Blvd.’s Catawba River crossing to further its progress? When could it be extended to Gastonia? And when will it be completed?

No matter the details, it looks like a commuter rail line will once again connect Gaston County to Charlotte. And that’s a pretty big deal.

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