Gastonia’s Loray Mill village offers signs of promise

The years leading up to and following the 1993 closure of the Firestone Mill in west Gastonia were not kind to the community that was bound to it.

Drug activity, prostitution and other crime sullied the reputation of the roughly 500-home, 30-block neighborhood surrounding what was originally known as the Loray Mill. More and more owner-occupied residences gave way to rental properties, and real estate values sank. Short-term residents there had less reason to care about where they lived, and those who were still vested in the area struggled to fight the onslaught of apathy.

But as the multi-million-dollar redevelopment of the mill into upscale loft apartments was taking shape several years ago, a nonprofit began working to extend that revitalization farther out into the Loray Mill Historic District. Preservation North Carolina’s goal has been to kindle a fire that can be fanned in the future by the private, for-profit sector. And officials say that work is finally producing tangible results in the form of climbing property values, elevated prices on home sales, and even new construction.

On what was formerly a vacant lot at 705 W. 2nd Ave., six blocks east of the Loray Mill, a new home was recently built and sold for $200,000 in December.

“If three years ago we’d asked a builder if they had ever thought of building a home in the mill village for a $200,000 price point, we’d have been laughed at,” said Jack Kiser, a project manager for Preservation North Carolina. “The real estate market in the neighborhood is entirely different now.”

Eric Layne, a local real estate agent and investor, has acquired several houses in the village in the past year and a half that he is now pumping money into and reselling. He said it’s not something he would have dreamed of doing until fairly recently.

“This little square is just primed for opportunity and development that’s been ignored for so many years,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of activity and buyers from people who are priced out of Charlotte. You can buy just as nice a home here for $200,000 to $300,000 less.”

Reversing a slow decline

Preservation North Carolina had a heavy role in coaxing along the mill’s rebirth, and then saw a golden opportunity to springboard off that progress.

Since 2015, the nonprofit has used low-interest loans to acquire more than a dozen different homes within the Loray village. It has already sold more than half of them to owners who agreed to restrictive covenants on the properties, such as assuring they will live in and not rent out the houses, and that they will preserve certain architectural features.

Residences that in many cases had come under the watch of slumlords, and seen their values dwindle to next to nothing, are now being revitalized. For example, Preservation N.C. bought a property at 906 W. Second Ave. in 2015 for $12,000, then set about restoring it as a model home to represent its vision for the village.

Exterior historic features were preserved. But the home received modern amenities, including classic tile bathroom floors, a contemporary kitchen with high-end appliances, hard-surface countertops, original siding and restored windows. A front deck and back patio provide ample opportunity for relaxing outdoors, and the interior has high ceilings that make it feel roomy.

Angela Starnes, a Gastonia native and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer, bought the home last summer for $115,000 — a dramatic increase from the $12,000 Preservation N.C. had paid for it. Almost a year later, she said she still views it as a place where she’ll live for a very long time. And she has been blown away by how much construction activity has cranked up in the neighborhood even since she moved in.

“I was confident in Preservation North Carolina’s vision for this area and knew they would get there eventually,” she said. “But I’m actually very surprised at how fast their progress has been. Things are definitely moving along pretty rapidly.”

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(Gaston Gazette, 5/5/19)