The City of Travelers Rest has a story very familiar to other Upstate communities. The textile mill closed in 1988, taking its economic vitality with it and leaving a community lacking in identity. Another loss from the same era pointed to the future, though — the Greenville and Northern Railway, also known as the Swamp Rabbit Railroad, had its tracks pulled up.
In 2009, the first portion of what is now known as the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail opened on the old rail route, better connecting Travelers Rest to Greenville, Furman University and beyond. Aiming to make the most of an opportunity that has now greatly transformed Travelers Rest, the city worked to invest in its downtown and in connection points throughout the community.
"We recognized that if we wanted to be the place, we needed to build the place. We needed to invest in our placemaking, we needed to invest in the connections to get people from point A to point B," City Administrator Eric Vinson said.
Vinson spoke at the "Place Branding and Economic Development" panel during Hometown Legislative Action Day. He was joined by Catherine Dority, director of marketing for Explore Charleston, who shared how her organization works with a tourism industry that employs more than 40,000 people and has an economic impact of $8.1 billion in the region.
A destination marketing organization, Explore Charleston operates four visitor's center locations around the Charleston region. Dority explained how her organization creates photo and video content to push out through magazine publications as well as online and through social media. Explore Charleston has a graphic designer to create print materials and also has a full-time social media manager.
The Charleston Visitor Center is one of four regional centers operated by Explore Charleston.
Photo: Explore Charleston.
She encouraged cities and towns to all get involved in their regional tourism offices. The SC Association of Tourism Regions divides the state up into 11 regions. Dority also advised the audience to be willing to promote whatever asset they have, from natural amenities to artist communities.
"Look around and see what you can promote," she said. "You don't have to be the next Greenville or Beaufort."
For Travelers Rest, Vinson also explored the branding process the city undertook. Residents had long discussed whether or not it was acceptable to refer to the city as "TR." The branding consultants, he said, "convinced us to own who we were." They adopted a logo with a lowercase "tr," and used the abbreviation with the "It Starts With tr" ad campaign.
The theme of outdoor opportunities is also pervasive in the city's projects. Trailblazer Park, located on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, is home to concerts, market events and movie nights, and in 2018 it became the location of the city's municipal complex.
The panel also highlighted marketing and development in Lake City. Seth Kines, executive director of Visit Lake City SC, noted that at first, his presentations on Lake City were overwhelmingly about the iconic Artfields festival. Artfields brings in 30,000 visitors over nine days, which in many ways matters more to local businesses than the holiday shopping season. Now, Kines only discusses Artfields briefly before moving on to all of the other things happening there.
"I think that's a testament to the power of Artfields, and what a festival can do for your community," he said.
Donald Walker completed the "Transformation" mural in Lake City during the 2019 Artfields.
Photo: Visit Lake City, SC.
Once visitors were in town, an additional challenge presented itself: small business owners often lack the staff to cover full and consistent business hours. The Greater Lake City Community Development Office therefore developed some incentives for longer and more consistent hours. One project was a facade improvement program, in which the storefront facelift was provided for selected businesses who committed to 40 or more hours of business each week. A workforce development program provided trainees that businesses could hire and receive reimbursement for part of their wages.
Lake City's efforts have garnered some significant recognition. In May 2019, Travel + Leisure magazine named it among the best places to visit, alongside such places as London and Stockholm.
Kines echoed Dority's call for focusing on existing assets. In Lake City's case, that included a tour map highlighting public art locations, such as murals, for visitors. Public art, he noted, is free to visit and never closes.
The art installations, he noted, "were already there … but if you aren't marketing and branding them, then what good does it do?"