The trail to Travelers Rest

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 22, 2014

TRAVELERS REST, S.C. — As the 15-member delegation from Granite Quarry, N.C., boarded a small chartered bus last Monday morning, F&M Bank Chairman Paul Fisher gave the passengers a brief introduction as to why they were headed for Travelers Rest, S.C.
“Our purpose for going is to figure out how someone else did it,” Fisher said.
Back in 2002, Travelers Rest (pop. 4,774) found itself in a situation similar to where Granite Quarry is today.
A federal highway passed through the heart of its downtown, and there weren’t many reasons for all those cars to stop. Travelers Rest was a go-through for motorists on their way to the N.C. mountains — Brevard and Asheville — or, in the opposite direction, those headed for Greenville.
There were hardly any shops, restaurants, unique stores or attractions making Travelers Rest a destination point.
“Very honestly,” said Fisher, who is familiar with Travelers Rest because he visits frequently to see his daughter, Paula, and her family, “their little town was ugly.”
Today’s Travelers Rest is not an oasis by any means, “but it’s pleasant, and you’re proud to live there,” Fisher said.
The 15 people from Granite Quarry included Fisher, whose bank is a significant property owner in Granite Quarry’s central business district; Mayor Bill Feather; Mayor Pro Tem Jim LaFevers; Alderman Mike Brinkley; Town Manager Dan Peters; Planning Director Susan Closner; members of the Planning Board; and businessmen and members of the downtown revitalization team.
While in Travelers Rest, the group had a sit-down meeting and lunch with City Administrator Dianna Turner and Mayor Wayne McCall. With Turner, they walked portions of what has become a major tool for recreation, community growth and economic development in Travelers Rest — the Swamp Rabbit Trail.
With Turner and McCall, they also strolled the sidewalks in downtown to see what Travelers Rest did with landscaping, street lamps, banners, branding, pocket parks, parking, crosswalks and other hardscape changes to improve the town’s appearance and effectively slow down the traffic on Main Street (U.S. 276).
They also saw examples of how merchants have found adaptive reuses for older buildings and, wherever possible, have built on their proximity to the Swamp Rabbit Trail.
Before leaving town, the Granite Quarry group made a stop at Travelers Rest’s new Trailblazer Park, which includes an outdoor amphitheater and a handsome covered area for Saturday morning farmers markets.
This summer, the terraced amphitheater has been home for a Saturday night concert series. In October, it will feature movies in the park. The park, situated between Paris Mountain and the escarpment to the Blue Ridge Mountains, also is only a short distance from the always busy Swamp Rabbit Trail.
In the downtown, a new gazebo is home for small Thursday night concerts in August sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce.
“We’re not perfect,” Turner said of what’s been happening in Travelers Rest. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
But Turner appreciates the fact other towns, such as Granite Quarry, have started to visit Travelers Rest for inspiration and tips on changes they can make.
“It means we’re doing something right,” she said.
In 2002, Travelers Rest brought in a planning consultant to help town officials identify areas where they could focus their attention.
The initial suggestions were to engage Furman University, which stands just 2 miles from the town limits; focus on downtown revitalization; and find a use for the abandoned Short Line Railroad tracks that cut through Travelers Rest and paralleled Main Street.
In 2012, Turner said town officials looked back and realized they had met every goal set out in 2002. She stressed that Granite Quarry must have a plan.
“That is critical,” Turner said, and she credited much of Travelers Rest success to its good working relationship with Arnett Muldrow & Associates, planners out of Greenville.
“You may have assets you don’t see. First and foremost, you need to get someone in there.”
The town came up with a detailed, conceptual master plan in 2006.
“The worst thing you can do is jump right in and do a piecemeal approach,” Turner said. “Planning is absolutely critical. See who fits your community best.”
It’s hard to separate many of Traveler’s Rest accomplishments from the development of the Swamp Rabbit Trail. Greenville County had purchased the abandoned rail line with the thinking that someday it might be of use for mass transit.
“We thought all along, why is this not a rails-to-trail project?” Turner said.
The train that used to travel those tracks was called the Swamp Rabbit.
Travelers Rest, the Greenville Health System and the county became partners, and in Travelers Rest, the paved, multi-use greenway has sparked economic development and public-private partnerships.
Many businesses, especially restaurants, like to provide access or be in close proximity to the trail, which sees considerable use from bicyclists, pedestrians and runners.
One of Travelers Rest’s bigger events every year is the Swamp Rabbit Trail 5K Run. It draws some 6,000 people and is the second biggest 5K run in South Carolina.
The start and finish is in the downtown.
The Granite Quarry group met and ate at the Cafe at Williams Hardware, which has direct access to the trail and offers rest rooms for the greenway users.
Today, the trail connects Travelers Rest with the heart of Greenville 10 miles away. It also goes through the middle of Furman University.
Fisher said Travelers Rest took the ugliest thing in town — the abandoned rail line — and made it the most positive thing.
Cat Williams, an employee at the Sunrift Adventures outfitters shop, said she commutes to work every day from her home in Greenville, thanks to the Swamp Rabbit Trail.
One result from the trail’s popularity, Turner acknowledged, is that most businesses want to be on the trail side, much like being on the ocean side at the beach.
“If you get people coming up here from Florida and Alabama to ride the bike trail,” said McCall, the Travelers Rest mayor, “hey, we’ll be glad to have them.”
Many people don’t realize, the mayor added, that the No. 1 industry in South Carolina has become tourism.
As part of its downtown efforts, Travelers Rest looked for ways to make its five-lane expanse of Main Street more attractive with many of the landscaping and hardscape improvements Granite Quarry’s delegation saw on its trip.
“All of these public investments are for a reason,” Turner said, adding town officials can’t expect to have private investment if there’s not a sense of pride and quality of life to draw it.
Turner said it was “a no-brainer” that Travelers Rest also had to find a brand or identity for itself. “There’s so much to be said about how you market yourself,” she added.
In years past, the town may have had one of the worst slogans or marketing tag lines when it was using “On the way up,” she said, because it suggested Travelers Rest hadn’t arrived or it was already at rock bottom.
Today, the town’s brand is “Tr,” designed like a symbol in the table of elements. And a motto became, “Get in your element at Travelers Rest.”
The branding campaign also led the town to play off words starting with “Tr,” such as trails, trek, travel and trees. In fact, that’s another tagline: “It starts with Tr.”
You can see some of these words in the town’s downtown banners, hanging from new street lamps. “Everybody has bought in,” Turner said.
McCall said he initially was “dead set against” the move toward abbreviating the town’s identity. He and other longtime residents had never embraced the inclination for outsiders to call Travelers Rest “TR,” McCall said.
The mayor eventually gave in and thinks the “Tr” branding is a positive, playing to the town’s strengths.
McCall said things were so bad several years ago in Travelers Rest the town council discussed the possibility of pulling the town’s charter. Most every building in the downtown was vacant, he acknowledged.
“We had tremendous retail leakage in 2002,” Turner added.
But the keys were coming up with an excellent plan, involving citizens in the process and thinking outside the box, McCall said.
“You’ve got to definitely incorporate your community,’ McCall said, “because they’re going to come holler to you.”
But he cautioned Granite Quarry officials not to make modifications in their plan for everyone, or they could lose their overall vision.
“We basically realized,” he added, “we have a gift in this trail.”
Travelers Rest reached its goal of engaging Furman University when college officials came to the town and asked for the school to be annexed.
“They needed our fire protection,” Turner said.
Granite Quarry had a fire insurance rating of “3,” which was much better than the special fire district rating the college was under of “7.”
Municipal franchise fees and business licenses for all the vendors who operate at Furman were some of the revenue sources the town could use to recoup its expenses for having to build a new $2 million-plus fire station to serve the university. (It’s under construction).
But now the town also can say it’s the home of Furman University.
“We woke up one morning, and we had a world-class university in our city,” McCall said.
The Granite Quarry delegation wanted to know how Travelers Rest paid for many of the landscaping and street improvements they saw on their visit.
Travelers Rest receives revenues from an accommodations tax on the two hotels it has — a Hampton Inn and Sleep Inn, mainly there because of Furman University.
The town also receives funding from a local 2 percent hospitality tax. Turner advised the Granite Quarry officials to lobby their legislators for that kind of consumption tax — it’s an important tool for cities in South Carolina, she said.
It generates more than $400,000 a year and has gone up as Traveler’s Rest has increased its number of restaurants. The town just added a craft brewer in March.
Travelers Rest also sought federal highway grants, private grants and endowments and contributions in exchange for naming rights. The two tax streams were used as collateral for the purchase of revenue bonds to help finance many of the public improvements.
The visiting delegation asked McCall and Turner for their best advice on how Granite Quarry could proceed.
McCall told his fellow town government colleagues in the room they needed to roll up their sleeves, conducts lots of planning meetings and prepare to work.
“It all starts at city hall,” McCall said.
Turner said, “You need to figure out what your identity is,” and she couldn’t help but be intrigued with Granite Quarry’s built-in abbreviation.
“You’re ‘GQ,’” she said. “How great is that?”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or