When the Municipal Association met in Greenville for the first time in February 1953, the city was a bustling hub of manufacturing and the downtown was a major commercial district. Over the years, the economy changed and so did the face of downtown. As the Association marks 60 years since that first Greenville Annual Meeting, the city’s changes over the decades offers a hands-on opportunity to learn how to successfully adapt and grow with the times.
The 1950s was a robust time in Greenville. It was the peak of manufacturing and the textile industry was in full swing. The downtown was where all the major retailers were located. But by the 1970s, there was a shift in Greenville, as with so many other cities. Major department stores and smaller retailers began moving out of downtown and into the suburbs where two large, enclosed malls opened. Downtown Greenville was left with vacant storefronts and a dormant Main Street.
City leaders knew something needed to be done to restore the area. Under the leadership of then-Mayor Max Heller, Greenville formed a public-private partnership to revitalize downtown. The plan called for narrowing Main Street, widening sidewalks and landscaping the area to enhance walkability.
While streetscaping was fundamental, city leaders recognized more needed to be done to create economic growth, said Nancy Whitworth, deputy city manager and director of economic development. Through its unique public-private partnership, the city opened the Greenville Commons, which included a Hyatt Regency, an office building, parking garage and convention center.
The development sparked renewed interest and confidence in downtown. It was followed by the construction of two more office buildings and a parking garage in the mid-1980s. Other investments soon came downtown – restaurants, retailers, additional office developments and mixed-use projects including housing.
City leaders then began eyeing other sections of downtown, including the south end of Main Street, where the Peace Center for the Performing Arts was built. The Peace Center, Whitworth said, came about after the Chamber of Commerce brought in a group to evaluate the needs of downtown. These consultants determined that Greenville needed a stronger cultural element that would enhance the quality of life for residents and attract economic development. The Peace Center also came to fruition through a public-private partnership, as well as a philanthropic effort, Whitworth added.
Whitworth said city leaders have been deliberate about using key anchors in town in an attempt to get good spin-off development. The Peace Center provided the first opportunity for local officials to think about utilizing the Reedy River and Falls.
“I think we all underestimated the value of the falls,” Whitworth said.
In 1960, the Camperdown Bridge was built across the falls, blocking public view and access. The vehicular-traffic bridge obstructed the falls for more than 40 years.
“People didn’t even realize the falls were there,” said Mayor Knox White.
The river became polluted and the surrounding land littered with trash and debris. In 1967, the Carolina Foothills Garden Club, with help from the city and Furman University, tried to clean up the area. Furman University donated six acres surrounding the falls to the city with the vision of creating a park. In the mid-1980s, the Garden Club and the city adopted a master plan for the park that was designed to restore beauty to the area and provide a public green space.
The city’s vision for the park truly took hold when the bridge was removed in 2003. Falls Park was developed to include 20 acres of gardens showcasing Reedy River Falls. The city spent $13 million on transforming the park, including the construction of a 355-foot-long, 12-foot-wide, curved suspension, pedestrian bridge designed to offer stunning views of the falls and the gardens below.
“It’s very unique to be able to have that right off your Main Street,” Whitworth said. “We took an asset we had and used it in a way to benefit the people here and serve as a postcard for Greenville.”
There initially was some resistance to the changes – discussions over why a perfectly good vehicular-traffic bridge should be taken down, only to have a pedestrian bridge go up, Whitworth said. However, city leaders had a vision and they took some risks.
“It takes leadership, vision and commitment to stick with it,” she said.
It paid off, and the park provided an opportunity for other economic development. RiverPlace, a development along the river that links to the park, offers office space, retail and restaurants, and housing. Fluor Field – the minor league baseball stadium that is home to the Boston Red Sox affiliate team and modeled after historic Fenway Park – was constructed downtown in 2006, along with other mixed-use development. Currently, the Twin Towers – a $100 million office complex – is under construction. The towers will provide space for offices, retail stores and restaurants.
Having a vibrant downtown starts with a vision and involves long-term planning and continuous work, White said.
In fact, it seems Greenville has come full circle. The Hyatt and Peace Center, which were among the first developments that sparked renewed interest in downtown, have just recently undergone renovations that reflect the new downtown and the new Main Street, White said. The Hyatt renovations cost more than $15 million for both interior and exterior improvements.
“The process never ends,” Whitworth added. “There is always that constant working to make things better.”
Greenville’s success began with a downtown plan that was committed to the fundamentals of good urban planning – a balance of mixed-use development, White said.
It’s also important for a city to have a personality, White said. A downtown should be filled with surprises, he said, like public art, attention to historic architecture and walkabillity.
“Find your assets,” White advised. “Not everybody has a falls, but you also might have an asset you’re overlooking. What do you have that’s authentic and unique to your city?”