by Ron Bernthal
In the past 25 years many large cities in America have transformed formerly neglected downtown areas into shining examples of mixed use, pedestrian-friendly, city centers that now thrive with restaurants, cultural centers, and residential housing.
Some of America’s largest cities, such as Cleveland, Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, and St. Louis, have all revitalized their downtowns, turning city centers that were once dark and forlorn after 5 pm into neighborhoods that now thrive with commerce, cultural venues, and even supermarkets for downtown residents, from early morning to late at night. It is usually more difficult for smaller cities to revitalize their inner core, especially in micro cities that lack the presence of wealthy and benevolent corporate neighbors.
But in Greenville, population 70,000, a former textile town in the “upstate” portion of South Carolina, a 30-year plan to revitalize a decaying downtown is finally paying off. The Financial Times recently named Greenville the “The Best Micro City in America,” and Fortune Magazine ranks it 4th on its “Best Places to Retire” list. Greenville’s new downtown restaurants, its myriad of cultural venues, and its recently restored historic districts have all won various national awards, as well as prime-time mention on TV shows as diverse as The Price is Right and Good Morning America.
“We have a strong work ethos here among our citizens, and very strong commitments from private employers to contribute to the city, in all sorts of ways. There is a true collaborative community here in Greenville,” said Knox White, the city’s mayor since 1995, from his office on the 10th-floor of City Hall. “The city’s private-public partnership has made the difference. It is what separates us from other small cities that have tried to revitalize their downtown, but lacked the cooperation and assistance of the big local employers. Town government cannot change a city’s physical look and ambience by themselves. We were able to push through municipal projects, and certainly got things started, but we needed the private sector for their support as well.”
The “private-public partnership” method of community development are not just words in Greenville. It is actually the way things work here, as everyone in the city will tell you. “Communities such as Greenville go through a tremendous growth period, and with all the workers we have here, as well as with our local suppliers, it is BMW’s responsibility to give back to the community, so we try to engage in, and support, many of the educational and cultural arts programs in the Greenville area. After all, we chose this community to call home,” said Max Metcalf, a spokesperson for BMW Manufacturing, which opened a large auto plant just outside of Greenville in 1994. The modern BMW plant (www.bmwusfactory.com), is one of several dozen international companies that maintain a large presence in the Greenville area, and contribute to the city’s rich and vibrant cultural life. Other firms include Michelin, Fluor Enterprises, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Bowater Incorporated, Carolina First Bank, Proterra, and ScanSource
The city’s compact, pedestrian-friendly downtown, has a tree-lined main street (called Main Street of course), filled with a variety of businesses, shops and restaurants, with residents living in second floor apartments in the renovated three- and four-story buildings that line both sides of the street. A 4,500-seat baseball field, constructed in 2006 and named Fluor Field, after a local corporation, is located in the city’s restored West End Historic District, within walking distance of downtown. The team that plays here, the Greenville Drive (www.greenvilledrive.com), is a Boston Red Sox minor league team, and the stadium is a smaller version of Boston’s Fenway Park, complete with a “green monster” left field wall.
Several years ago the city demolished an unsightly, downtown auto bridge, exposing the free-flowing Reedy River, as well as a natural waterfalls flowing over sturdy granite boulders. Mayor White was criticized at first for taking away a central artery into the city, but after professional landscaping created Falls Park (www.fallspark.com), and a stunning, cantilevered pedestrian bridge, designed by Bostonian Miguel Rosales, was constructed above the waterfalls, the area became the centerpiece of downtown Greenville’s revitalization.
A few blocks from Falls Park a 1920’s-era hotel building, which stood empty for years, is now the deluxe Westin Poinsett hotel (www.westinpoinsettgreenville.com), and a brand new Marriott Courtyard (www.marriottcourtyardgreenville.com) now sits on a lush, green parcel of land that once was a drab, concrete parking garage. The popular Swamp Rabbit Trail, a 13.5 mile rail-to-trail walking and bike path cuts through the middle of the city, and Greenville is the hometown of professional bicyclist George Hincapie, a Tour de France competitor, and always a favorite when the city’s hosts the annual USA Pro Cycling Championships each year (www.usacyclingchampionships.com).
“Greenville’s downtown revitalization has benefited the arts community immensely,” said Alan Ethridge, Executive Director of Greenville’s Metropolitan Arts Council (www.greenvillearts.com). “The redevelopment of downtown has been absolutely vital to the success we’ve had bringing in theatre groups, rock concerts, artists, and opening up performance spaces. All the revenue that results, and the intangible cultural benefits, is the result of having great corporate sponsors of the arts.”
Greenville’s business and political leaders are not congratulating themselves on a job well done, despite all the media accolades. “Ongoing and new city projects are in the pipeline,” said Mary Douglas Hirsch, the city’s downtown development manager for the Department of Economic Development. “The city’s work is never done, and we are continuing to develop new ideas, new city events and business projects, and use the experience we’ve gained during the past several decades to keep improving on our success.”
Greenville’s seemingly unlimited civic pride and “can do” attitude started with the growth of the textile industry, which occurred in the early 1800’s, giving rise to a small but influential group of hard-working mill owners and workers.
Post Civil War reconstruction was difficult throughout the south, and Greenville was no exception, but new railroad lines, and the growth of cotton in the area, enabled the town to prosper more than most. In addition, deciding to recruit Europeans from Germany and Scandinavia to work the cotton fields and textile mills, after most of the town’s black population went north, fueled a somewhat sophisticated European-style community with a vibrant social, cultural, and business life, which in turn led to a continued influx of European workers, often highly skilled. This educated and diverse group of immigrants would help shape Greenville’s character for decades to come.
One of these European immigrants was Max Heller, an Austrian who arrived in Greenville in 1938, just before members of his family in Vienna were deported to the Nazi death camps. Heller would eventually become a respected businessman in Greenville, and Mayor Heller from 1971-1979. As city mayor he was influential in spearheading the city’s Total Development plan, the true beginning of Greenville’s urban revitalization. It was Heller who fought for the redevelopment of the Main Street corridor, had the city purchase land on North Main Street where a Hyatt Hotel would establish itself, and pushed for the restoration of many downtown historic buildings.
Having an educated, hard-working, European work force in Greenville would eventually attract European-owned companies, like Michelin and BMW, and these employment opportunities would in turn draw other European skilled workers and professionals, including machinists, engineers, doctors, architects, and entrepreneurs, all of whom would volunteer their services and work with local residents and politicians in the transformation of Greenville from a modest, southern mill town into a prosperous and attractive South Carolina city.
Today, with more international firms per capita than any other city in the country, large or small, a unique culinary scene has blossomed here as well. Several talented South Carolina chefs have opened restaurants in the city, which has spurred a farm-to-table movement that makes good use of the region’s fertile farmland that surrounds the city.
Carl Sobocinski started things off in 1997 by opening Soby’s New South Cuisine in a brick, 19th century cotton warehouse on South Main Street, an area of downtown that was just on the cusp of development. “We took this old building and renovated it, figuring that this part of Main Street, just a block from the Peace Center arena, was going to be hot one day” said Mr. Sobocinski, a former college baseball player whose casual dress and movie-star looks belie his work ethic, as well as his knack for creating an irresistible atmosphere for dining and drinking. “Well, that day has come, Main Street and downtown Greenville is hot, and our company, Table 301, now has several restaurants downtown and we love being part of the growth of the city.”
Chef Shaun Garcia at Soby’s (www.sobys.com) along with Anthony Gray at High Cotton (www.mavericksouthernkitchens.com), Vickie Moore at the Lazy Goat (www.thelazygoat.com), Jason Scholz at Stella’s Southern Bistro, Spencer Thomson at Devereaux’s (www.devereauxsdining.com), and Joe Clark at the eclectic American Grocery (www.americangr.com), all try to obtain as much locally produced produce as possible for their popular restaurants. Local farmers sell directly to many Greenville restaurants, and keep the home cooks happy as well by appearing at numerous farmers’ markets with fresh herbs, vegetables, and dairy products.
The city’s burgeoning foodie scene has become so popular that the annual Euphoria Food, Wine, and Music Festival (www.EuphoriaGreenville.com) receives visitors from around the world. The fifth annual Euphoria, held in September, was “four days filled with great food, lots of fabulous wine, and live music performances from start to finish,” said Gina Boulware, a festival board member. More than 3,500 guests from the United States, Canada, Central America, and Europe attended the event.
It seems that almost every week companies make media announcements that include Greenville in their business plans. The latest include Southwest Airlines, which will begin air service from several cities beginning early 2011, and the upscale supermarket chain Trader Joe’s, which has just opened its first Greenville location. Media outlets (including this one) have picked up on Greenville’s emerging popularity, and are giving the city plenty of positive ink. Of course, the city is not immune to national economic swings or other urban problems, including a crime rate that is higher than the national average, despite a steady drop in incidents for the past ten years. Approximately 16% of the population is living below the poverty line, and unemployment, about 10%, is slightly higher than the national (9.6%) average.
Greenville’s population fell 4.7% during the 1990’s, as city residents moved into the suburbs, but downtown housing constructed in the past decade, either modern, glass-sheathed condo’s, or historic loft renovations, is reversing that trend, and young professionals, artists, and retirees are now returning to live downtown. Greenville’s pedestrian-friendly city center provides easy access to restaurants, shops, entertainment venues, and the educational resources of nearby Furman and Bob Jones Universities.
Art & Entertainment Venues:
Peace Center for the Performing Arts
The Bi-Lo Center
Carolina Ballet Theatre
Greenville County Museum of Art
Greenville Little Theatre
Greenville Symphony Orchestra
The Warehouse Theatre
The Children’s Museum of the Upstate
Greenville Convention & Visitors Bureau
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