By Pete M. Anderson

In October, Gastonia City Council voted 7-0 to ignite FUSE — Franklin Urban Sports and Entertainment, 16 acres of multi-use redevelopment along West Franklin Boulevard that will be anchored by a field for the Grizzlies. Don’t compare it with BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte, home of the Knights, Chicago White Sox’s Triple-A affiliate, or the $33 million stadium that will bring a Houston Astro’s minor-league team to Fayetteville. “Our model has nothing to do with baseball,” Cole says. “If [the city is] building a ballpark, we aren’t interested. It’s all about the entertainment experience.”

The Coastal Plain League’s other 14 teams — including the Bananas in Savannah, Ga., which Cole launched this year — play at traditional ballparks similar to 4,000-seat Sims Legion Park, the Grizzlies’ home since 2002. When Cole was named Grizzlies’ general manager in 2008, attendance at Sims was “about 200.” He says the added attractions helped sell out 25% of the past two 56-game seasons. Its 60,000-plus fans was the most in the CPL in 2015.

A request for quotation for architectural plans will be made after property closings are complete next month. Crisp believes construction on the field, estimated to cost $15 million and paid for with public and private money, could begin later in the year, when a second RFQ will seek developers for the mixed-use space. Kristy Crisp, Gastonia’s business services manager, says the October council vote approved about $4 million to purchase and begin demolition on four properties. One is a Budget Inn motel. A storefront that has been empty since Sears moved less than 3 miles to Eastridge Mall in the late 1970s stands on a 6-acre parcel. They’ll be razed. The others — Trenton Mill and a former Coca-Cola bottling plant that’s headquarters to contract metal-working company Fab-Tech Inc. — will be incorporated into FUSE, preserving their historic architecture. The city is helping tenants find new locations.

The former Loray Mill factory has been transformed into apartments near downtown Gastonia.

Gastonia’s downtown, like other communities tightly tied to textiles, has seen tough times. But recent developments, including a 30,000-square-foot conference center in 2011 and a smorgasbord of restaurants, have sparked a rebirth. Renovations at nearby 600,000-square-foot Loray Mill, once the world’s largest textile factory, are adding to it. [Read: “Gaston gets hot”] Atlanta-based Camden Management Partners and Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.-based JBS Ventures LLC, which lists Charlotte resident and Gastonia-based Historic Preservation Partners LLC co-founder Billy Hughes as a principal, spent about $45 million to convert a large portion of the mill to 189 apartments and 80,000 square feet of commercial space, where an athletic club is open and microbrew pub is under construction.

“It’s Gastonia’s time,” Crisp says. “We’ve seen that growth with downtown and Loray. [FUSE] is an extension of downtown.”

Joel Roberts owns an insurance agency and is co-chairman of Downtown Gastonia Merchants Association. Most members’ businesses are along Main Avenue, whose western stretch intersects FUSE. “We are excited about it,” he says. “There isn’t any opposition — that I am aware of — in our group. The more growth there is the better it is for everyone.”

In addition to diners and shoppers, he expects FUSE to add downtown traffic from sports fans and urban dwellers. “From a merchant’s perspective, regardless of the service they are providing or selling, that’s exciting.”

Featured image courtesy of City of Gastonia.