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Local economies benefit after focusing on niche

In the mid 2000s, downtown Fountain Inn was lethargic. More than half of its storefronts were empty. Retail stores were moving to neighboring towns. Officials became concerned that industrial and corporate entities would soon follow suit and relocate.

The city's 2006 master plan, which was developed with input from residents, determined the direction that Fountain Inn would take. City leaders held community charrettes giving residents the opportunity to share their thoughts and expectations. More than 250 people participated in these meetings. From there, Fountain Inn's niche as a boutique, artisan and eclectic environment-with a developing food destination goal-was born.

After years of seeing their downtown districts struggle, many mid-size cities like Fountain Inn have realized that to grow and flourish they need to focus on developing their strengths and defining their niches.

City leaders in Fountain Inn used Greenville as a model on how to develop downtown. They also studied the experiences of nearby Clinton and Laurens, which were trying to do some of the same things. Now, many middle-sized towns are looking to Fountain Inn for direction and guidance, according to Mayor Gary Long.

The majority of the plan was funded by the City of Fountain Inn. There also were some collaborative efforts with Greenville County's planner. Financial support came from grants and state funding.

Although half of the councilmembers changed during the development process, the plan remained viable without interruption largely due to the emphasis on keeping the lines of communication open, such as having regular updates to council, town hall meetings and weekly merchant meetings as needed, Long said.

Fountain Inn has been seeing positive results. Hospitality tax revenues have doubled in the last three years, and the number of restaurants has grown three-fold, according to Long. More people are spending time downtown thanks to the introduction of a farmers market, performing arts center events, music every Friday and Saturday night in the summer, and efforts to clean up downtown.

The performing arts center reports more than 20,000 visitors a year, and it contributes more than $1 million a year to the city's economy, according to Long.

The development of Commerce Park at Depot Street is a showpiece for the town and home to the Chamber of Commerce, farmers market, history center, amphitheater and nearby Rotary Park.

The farmers" market has had an unexpected benefit as an incubator. Many artisans who started as a fledgling business transformed into a full- or part-time business in a storefront on Main Street. A number of those have sustained their mark as a business past the first year, according to Long.

With all the development has come growth; a new high school is scheduled to open in 2018-19.

Today, restaurants and housing are becoming more of a focus. Three more new restaurants are in the planning stages. There are 100-200 housing units planned inside the city over the next two years.

"This sleepy little town is waking up," Long said. "We-re still changing. We-re going to be even more dynamic than we are now."

Leaders with the City of Pickens also realized that in order to reach its potential the city needed a plan in place to revitalize the community. City and community leaders worked with Main Street South Carolina, a service of the Municipal Association, to form the Pickens Revitalization Association. The nonprofit organization helps the community to focus on business and community development.

Like Fountain Inn, Pickens discovered its niche by going through a master planning charrette process, with help from revitalization professionals brought together by Main Street South Carolina. Through the process, Pickens leaders realized that they weren't fully capitalizing on their tagline of "where the mountains begin," according to PRA Executive Director Allison Fowler.

"If all of those outdoors-minded people (hikers, cyclists, boaters, etc.) were coming through Pickens to get to the mountains and lakes, why not offer a reason for them to stop here first?" said Fowler. "Why not become the community that attracted them to stop for awhile, grab a bite to eat, listen to some music downtown, check out everything Pickens has to offer? Pickens realized that our niche had been there all along, we just weren't capitalizing on it."

Out of the planning process came the development of the old Pickens rail line into a walking and biking trail, a downtown amphitheater and the idea for a BMX-style bike park.

"Most importantly, it gave Pickens a sense of identity, potential and a positive vision of the future," Fowler said.
 
The amphitheater is now closing out its second season. The plan behind it was to hold more frequent events, draw people back to Main Street and recreate a sense of community, according to former Pickens City Administrator Katherine Hendricks, who recently became the assistant town administrator for Mount Pleasant.

Town Creek Bike Park is nearing completion and construction is about to begin on the Doodle Rail Trail.
 
"The bike park is intended to be a recreation tourism asset bringing in visitors and in the future be a home to more events," Hendricks said. "Once the Doodle Trail is built, those coming from Easley will have a reason to come through our Main Street and enjoy our recreation property for hours."

With these amenities in place, Pickens will begin focusing on their business recruitment practices and overall relationship with entrepreneurs. Over the last year, Pickens served as a pilot community for the Appalachian Council of Government's Entrepreneur-Friendly Toolkit program.

Recruiting businesses is the core strength of the Town of Fort Mill. With its location near the state border, the town is perfectly suited to attract offices from Charlotte, N.C.

"Fort Mill offers lower South Carolina taxes, lower gas prices, outstanding schools and first-class recreation opportunities," said Dennis Pieper, town manager.
 
The Town's elected officials gathered input from constituents on what they want to see in Fort Mill, Pieper said. Residents have said they want the Town to seek job opportunities that will allow them to work close to home while preserving and building a commercial tax base to keep taxes low, he said. The Town currently serves as the headquarters for large companies such as Citi Financial, UC Synergetic, and Domtar.

"We knew we had a niche that we could grow because of the opportunities for expansion in the Kingsley Business Park and the surrounding area," said Mayor Danny Funderburk. "We have worked closely with owners and developers to ensure that we have development standards that provide a superior "Class A" business park with first-in-class amenities." 

Most of the funding and incentives for the expansion project have come from the state Department of Commerce and the York County Economic Development Board.

Any jobs in the area or in the region provide great economic opportunity for Fort Mill, Pieper said. It leads to people living, dining and shopping in the town. The companies also have made significant investments and shown their interest in being truly vested in the community, he said.