S.C. sights: Greenville trip meant to be used for inspiration

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Mark Wineka
GREENVILLE, S.C. ó Some 30 years ago, Greenville bought into Mayor Max Heller’s vision to transform Main Street, the spine through the downtown, into something that was reminiscent of the Austrian streets Heller knew from his childhood.
One by one, he persuaded city officials, merchants and property owners that they should narrow Main Street from four lanes to two, drastically widen the sidewalks, allow for angled parking, plant flowers and trees everywhere and create places for people to congregate.
It was the start of a remarkable transition that has made Greenville’s downtown a destination spot and the envy of medium-sized cities across the country.
Last Thursday, a group of 33 from Salisbury took a bus trip to Greenville (population 56,000) to see the city’s central business district.
Downtown Salisbury Inc. hopes to use the Greenville trip and a similar May 7 excursion to Asheville as inspiration for an update of its 2001 Downtown Master Plan.
A frequent visitor and strong enthusiast of what Greenville has done, F&M Bank Chairman Paul Fisher had this advice for his fellow Salisburians as they loaded off the bus Thursday morning:
“The idea is to steal everything you can,” he said.
Greenville relied on public-private partnerships and tax-increment financing to build important anchors in the downtown, which today include hotels such as the Hyatt Regency and Westin Poinsett; the Peace Center for the Performing Arts; Falls Park on the Reedy River; the iconic Liberty Bridge for pedestrians in Falls Park; the Riverwalk multi-use development along the Reedy; and the Greenville Drive Stadium for minor league baseball.
Developers and the city also worked on projects bringing apartments, condominiums, offices, stores and parking garages to the downtown. Some 2,000 people are now living in the broader Greenville downtown.
A new Publix grocery store is thriving.
In between all the major developments, the city paid close attention to details: public art, signs, landscaping, sidewalks, furniture, traffic signals, crosswalks, courtyards, wireless Internet ó even newspaper boxes.
Visitors are encouraged to take scavenger hunts for the “Mice on Main,” 10 tiny bronze mice scattered along Main Street. Clues are available for the hunters.
Downtown pedestrians also might be on the lookout for “Thoughts on the Walk,” 27 famous quotes sunk into the sidewalk from the likes of Malcolm Forbes, Will Rogers, Shakespeare, Erma Bombeck and Yogi Berra, who once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
Another downtown attraction are the modern sculptures and bronze, life-size statues of important people in Greenville’s history.
“It’s a constant work in progress,” Nancy Whitworth, head of Greenville’s Economic Development Department, said of all that’s involved with keeping the downtown interesting and alive.
“Our downtown is very fragile, and I’m sure that’s the same for any downtown now,” Whitworth said. “… First of all, you never declare victory on anything.”
Even after the Heller-inspired facelift, city officials realized in the 1980s they needed events to bring people to the downtown. Public Information Officer Angie Prosser said, “You either worked here and left, or you didn’t come at all.”
“We had this wonderful place, but we really didn’t have anything going on,” Whitworth added.
That has drastically changed.
Falls Park ó imagine plopping down Cooleemee’s picturesque Bull Hole in the middle of South Main Street in Salisbury ó draws thousands of people who want to walk, bike or jog its trails; visit the restaurants and artists’ shops along Riverwalk; throw down a blanket and have a picnic; climb on the river rocks; or walk their dogs.
But the city also has concentrated on events.
Last year, the downtown had 154 different events ó annual things such as the St. Francis Fall for Greenville festival in October, the Greenville Jazz and Blues Festival in November or the Greenville News Run in January.
Other events might be part of a series: Shakespeare in the Park during the summer, Moonlight Classic Movies, the Reedy River Nighttime Concerts on Wednesdays, Downtown Alive on Thursdays, Main Street Jazz on Fridays, a farmers’ market on Saturday mornings and Jam’n by the Reedy on Saturday nights.
“We let you stay home Monday and Tuesday nights,” Prosser said.
The city served as a catalyst for many of the events, furnishing start-up money. But it quickly looked ó and still does ó to hand the events off to other entities to manage.
A 2 percent hospitality tax charged on food and beverage ó a tax that generates about $6 million a year ó helps pay for things from the city’s end.
The visiting Salisbury group had several hours to tour downtown Greenville, eat lunch in restaurants of their choosing and mingle at day’s end in the historic Westin Poinsett lobby before boarding the bus for home.
At other times, they met at City Hall and discussed the downtown with developers, city staff members, a longtime downtown merchant and Mayor Knox White.
White stressed the importance of strategically located anchor developments that could spin off other economic activities. Greenville spends a lot of time working on the space between the anchors, White said.
“It’s all about the pedestrian experience ó what you feel, hear and see,” he added.
When it comes to working with developers, the city puts a lot of emphasis on the design review process, providing for pedestrian friendly environments and making sure developments are multiple uses.
When parking garages are built, offices and stores are combined with them, for example.
The minor league stadium, built in 2006, includes condominiums overlooking the field. Offices and retail also are part of the stadium development on the West End.
“In every case, the involvement of the city is crucial,” said Russ Davis, a developer with Davis Property Group. “If you don’t get it, the project becomes five times more difficult.”
White has been mayor for 13 years. Early in his political career, he caught enormous heat for his support of the Falls Park project, and the bold decision to tear down the four-lane Liberty Bridge on Camperdown Way and replace it with the 380-foot-long pedestrian bridge overlooking the falls.
Most Greenville residents traveling across the former highway bridge didn’t realize the attractive falls even existed until the city decided to build its park and Riverwalk development next to it.
“It’s absolutely, drop-dead gorgeous,”‘ White said. “… The naysayers are gone, hiding under rocks and no longer seen any more.”
Deb Agnew, owner of Ayers Leather Shop in Greenville, has been part of a downtown merchant family for more than 50 years. Her advice for other downtown stakeholders:
“When something works, run with it,” she said. “It takes awhile for people to catch on.”
Agnew lived in the glory days of Greenville’s downtown when it was the center for everything. She saw its decline in the ’60s and ’70s and the rebirth over the past 25 years.
“I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said, “and now we’re back to the best.”