Thirteen years ago, a team of local disciples traveled to Kansas City, Mo., to tell an inspirational story and cement Gastonia’s claim as an All-America City.
Gastonia was among 30 finalists invited to make the trip. But it was not among the 10 winners chosen by the National Civic League, which presents the nation’s oldest and most prestigious civic recognition award each year.
“(City Councilman) Walker (Reid) and I still have the scars to prove it,” Mayor Jennie Stultz said Tuesday.
The pain was eased three years later in Louisville, when Gastonia qualified again and was named a 2000 All-America City. But in June, city leaders will try to erase the memories of 1997 by traveling to Kansas City once more — this time hopefully bringing home another All-America City title.
“Our hope is that winning will let the city be the shining beacon of hope that it should be,” said Reid, during a special gathering to unveil the news Tuesday that Gastonia was among the 30 finalists for the 2010 crown.
Some 50 people looked on as city leaders proudly made the announcement at Gateway Village, a $4.3 million senior housing complex that could play a role in Gastonia winning the title again. It represents one aspect of three community projects that the city has documented in showing how it addressed its most critical challenges last year.
Gastonia was also named an All-America City in 1963. It is the only North Carolina finalist this year, and its closest geographic peer is Mount Pleasant, S.C.
“We want to tell the story of ‘Great Place, Great People, Great Promise,’” said Stultz, evoking the city’s official motto.
National Civic League President Gloria Rubio-Cortés said the 60th anniversary of the event will include some tough competition.
“These communities give us outstanding examples of leadership and civic innovation,” she said. “The All-America City Award is like an Oscar for civic accomplishment.”
Three key projects
Gastonia’s application highlighted efforts to revitalize and upgrade housing and services in the historic Highland community. It detailed the strides of Run for the Money, an annual fundraiser for Gaston County nonprofits. And it described the way that several programs are benefitting local children by seeking to reduce the high school dropout rate and improve youth employability.
The city’s work in the Highland area has included helping the county to plan a new public health center there. The city acquired $4.3 million in senior housing financing to build the 40-unit senior housing complex in 2009, addressing severe housing needs. And it has worked with more than 50 local churches to put on Hope for Gaston, a massive semi-annual undertaking that involves volunteers collecting food for the needy and repairing dilapidated homes.
John Whitaker, the director of Hope for Gaston, said city leaders and staff members have wholeheartedly embraced the effort.
“The city has been very, very important in what we do,” he said.
Lee Ann Harris, Run for the Money coordinator for the Community Foundation of Gaston County, spoke about how the road race galvanized people from its inception in 2003. It has become a critical means of raising funds for non-profits that put the money to countless good uses, she said.
“All told, the Run has raised $7,891,836 for Gaston County nonprofits in its seven years, including $1,925,000 in Foundation matching funds,” she said.
Luis Ruis, president of the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council, discussed the successes of local programs such as Project Tassel and Gaston Career Climb. The two initiatives are aimed at encouraging students to stay in school and graduate, and improving their potential of eventually finding good jobs.
Ruis said he has been most proud of “the persistence, cooperation and teamwork” shown by program supporters.
Stultz said sponsors will be sought to foot the bill for sending a local delegation to Kansas City for three days. It would ideally be made up of 30 or more people, including a number of residents who have personally benefitted from the local initiatives.
“You want the people who have told the story to go,” she said.
Stultz said an All-America City designation may not directly lead to a huge creation of jobs. But the 2000 victory helped the city build a volunteer base for the West Gastonia Boys and Girls Club and strengthened support of a local adult literacy program, she said.
“If we can celebrate what people did out of love and concern for their community, that’s a big boost,” Stultz said.