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Distance learning: Seven lessons from a transformed mill city

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  • 11 min to read
Distance learning: Seven lessons from a transformed mill city

GREENVILLE, S.C.

Standing on a 345-foot curved suspension bridge, Ann McCullough admired the downtown waterfall that attracts not only locals but newcomers like herself.

What's Working

What’s Working

“It’s beautiful,” said McCullough, 79, a former Stratham, N.H., resident who now splits her time between South Carolina and Florida.

“You’ve got to find something to build around” for your community, said her husband, Skip Disbrow, 76.

Like Manchester, Greenville was a textile-producing powerhouse before it was forced to reinvent itself. Manchester focused on redeveloping its Millyard, which today is populated by tech companies and other businesses.

Greenville transplant from NH

Ann McCullough, 79, a former Stratham resident, points at the waterfall from the Liberty Bridge, a pedestrian-only suspension bridge over the Reedy River in Greenville’s Falls Park.

Greenville, 2 1/2 hours from Atlanta, took a different tack. Recently, the city of 70,000 was named one of three “breakout cities” by the Wall Street Journal, after landing on top-10 lists for its restaurant scene and quality of life.

Greenville’s downtown waterfall was a lesson — one of several this city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains has shared with those hoping to emulate its success. Those lessons draw a road map that cities in New Hampshire and elsewhere could follow.

LESSON 1:

Find your game-changer

Twenty years ago, most people didn’t even know the waterfall was there — a bridge blocked the view of it. The city tore down the bridge in 2002, built the pedestrian Liberty Bridge and created the 20-acre Falls Park along the Reedy River.

“This was our big game changer,” Mayor Knox White said in a recent interview.

City leaders have capitalized on decades of planning, encouraging developers to create multi-use projects — sometimes with city funds or property — and using tourism and property taxes to pay for infrastructure upgrades and new parks.

Liberty Bridge

The Reedy River runs through downtown Greenville, S.C. The river once was the lifeline for the city’s textile mills. In the past two decades, it’s become the centerpiece of Greenville’s downtown renaissance.

“That money was very strategically put back into beautification projects that helped draw more developments that brought more tax base and kind of feeding itself that way,” said John Nolan, who gives historical and food tours and has written two books on the city, including “A Guide to Historic Greenville, South Carolina.”

Falls Park, which includes public restrooms, park space and at least one restaurant, was built with tourism tax dollars. A private developer is constructing a 187-room boutique hotel overlooking the falls — the Grand Bohemian Hotel Greenville — that is slated to open in 2022.

“In terms of what makes us unique and different, it was really having the shades lifted on our eyes about the river and of course the waterfall,” the mayor said. “But it was not obvious.”

Said Nolan, “While there’s certain things that you can glean that can be good for a lot of different cities, really finding what your own niche is, what you can capitalize on (is the key).

“Like here, the falls. I mean it’s a no-brainer now.”

LESSON 2:

Focus on the long term

By the 1970s, most of the area’s textile mills had shuttered and many stores had abandoned downtown Greenville for the malls, Nolan said.

In 1971, Max Heller, a Jewish immigrant who fled Austria in fear of the Nazis, became the city’s mayor.

Heller was accustomed to outdoor cafes and “a European street feel, and that’s what he wanted for Greenville,” so he hired the same urban planner who designed Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, Nolan said.

“He did a master plan for Greenville. The two lanes (of traffic) that we have today, the tree canopy, the wide sidewalks, that all came in 1979 under Max Heller,” Nolan said.

Renovated mill

Historical tour guide John Nolan visits a renovated textile mill in downtown Greenville, S.C. that was built in 1882 and today is used to host events.

White, mayor since 1995, has orchestrated much of the city’s transformation.

“I always tell people, when I came in, we had beautiful trees, but there was nothing under the trees,” White said over breakfast inside The Westin Poinsett, an elegant historic hotel that homeless people squatted in before it was renovated and reopened in 2000.

Planning has been a recurring theme.

In 1989, Greenville worked with others to commission a downtown development strategy that resulted in construction of 12 downtown parking garages over 20 years.

Just this year, the City Council approved GVL 2040, a 100-plus page plan that Greenville could use to shape itself over the next two decades. It pushes a commitment to preserve land, create more affordable housing and embrace expanded options to move about.

The city’s extensive planning was noted by a delegation from Lafayette, La., who visited Greenville and met with city officials in 2019.

“Greenville leaders were very intentional in their approach to redeveloping, relying on sound advice from outside experts,” read the delegation’s PowerPoint presentation on what it learned.

In a similar way, Manchester moved to jumpstart its economy in the 1990s with community planning sessions that included discussions about building a downtown arena and a baseball stadium, two large projects that eventually brought in more restaurants and other businesses.

LESSON 3:

Mix business with residential

Building success in Greenville meant constructing projects that had more than one purpose and helped create better neighborhoods.

“It’s about mixed use, a real laser-like focus on mixed use, especially getting residential in the downtown,” White said. “That’s your secret sauce, by the way.”

When the city donated a parcel from a deserted lumber yard, officials wanted more than just a privately financed baseball stadium.

Team owner Craig Brown

Greenville Drive owner Craig Brown stands atop the Green Monster replica that is the left field wall at Fluor Field in Greenville, S.C. The Drive is a minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.

Greenville Drive team owner Craig Brown was focused on baseball, so he got a developer to construct a large building in the city’s West End that resembled the brick warehouse at Camden Yards in Baltimore and included offices and condos.

“Craig’s group did it the right way,” said White, whose city was the birthplace of controversial baseball player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.

The ballpark and warehouse used an estimated 3 million bricks from defunct South Carolina mills, according to Forest Stulting, the team’s media and creative services director.

The stadium project was a way to develop an area where few wanted to venture.

There was “a half mile of abandoned buildings” between Falls Park and the stadium, White said.

“We used to walk around the place and say, ‘This is like a Hollywood set. Someone made a movie here and just kind of abandoned it.’ Syringes, pieces of clothing, just things strewn all over, not a good place,” he said.

Today, it’s a lively neighborhood of restaurants and quirky shops dotted with public benches.

The stadium — Fluor Field, home to a Boston Red Sox minor-league team — has a 30-foot Green Monster replica for its left-field wall.

In the decade after its 2006 opening, 186 businesses opened within a quarter-mile of the ballpark, Stulting wrote in his master’s thesis at Northwestern University.

Stadium projects often bring new visitors — and sometimes additional businesses — to their communities.

In Manchester, Delta Dental Stadium and the Hilton Garden Inn behind left field were part of a coordinated effort, though plans for a large-scale commercial development fell through.

Today, a crane stands across the street from the Greenville stadium, where 200 housing units are being built, part of a development that will create an entertainment district with more new restaurants.

Business at the Ballpark

The Greenville Drive baseball team honored downtown business people during a recent day game as construction continued across the street from Fluor Field.

The city contributed $2.5 million from its infrastructure fund, fueled by money from a leftover tax increment financing district, which captured tax dollars generated by increased property values.

In the late 1980s, Greenville created three TIF districts in the downtown area, allowing it to fund parking garages and partner with private developers on projects. More than $100 million was raised from the taxing districts, according to the report from Lafayette.

Several New Hampshire communities also have used TIFs. Officials in Nashua have discussed using such a taxing district to help fund a downtown performing arts center and public parking complex.

Greenville even plans to sell its 11-story City Hall building on Main Street, which the mayor expects will become a mixed-used building.

As growth continues, some residents want to shut the door.

“It’s grown from this podunk, sleepy town to this very nice town,” said Mike Beeson, who’s lived in the area for 50 years, during an afternoon baseball game. “As a local guy, for me, it’d be nice if they stopped right here.”

White has heard that sentiment, especially from longtime residents.

“I can take them to plenty of places that are not growing, and it’s not a happy picture right in South Carolina, so if they want to live there...,” the mayor said.

LESSON 4:

Go big downtown

Lush tree canopies kept the wide sidewalks cool as Ellen Tessier walked her mixed-breed dog Bentley along Main Street, the early morning so quiet that birds could be heard chirping.

“I think that Greenville has a lot of positive things going for it, and I like it here,” said Tessier, who’s lived in the area for 30 years, the past year and a half downtown.

About 2½ years ago, Laurel Smith fled the tourist town of Asheville, N.C., for a better job in Greenville 90 minutes away.

“I love downtown, and that was a big draw for me,” said Smith, 30, attending a young professionals event at a Drive baseball game.

Most of her friends are transplants from New York, Pennsylvania and Canada.

Sidewalk cafe

Sidewalk dining at an open-air table at Grill Marks on South Main Street in Greenville, S.C.

“I think that says a lot of people move down here for jobs,” said Smith, who works in marketing helping clients optimize their online searches.

Public art is sprinkled throughout downtown, including statues and metal installations.

Smith liked that downtown offered many entertainment choices, from “live street music to Broadway plays.”

Lauren Turner, who owns The Vintage Barber just off Main Street, said former residents who come back at Christmas to visit family are surprised at its progress.

Downtown “has changed drastically in the last 10 years,” said Turner, whose shop is in a century-old building.

Her customers include people who have moved from Ohio, Florida and California, relocating to cheaper homes to work at area employers like Michelin and BMW.

“You’ve got to impress people because you want to bring more industry in,” Turner said.

The Vintage Barber

Lauren Turner, who owns The Vintage Barber just off Main Street in Greenville, S.C., points to a picture showing what her building used to look like decades ago.

Garth Warner, vice president of human resources at Hubbell Lighting, which employs 600 in Greenville, called downtown a vibrant and important area.

“It doesn’t take long for anyone to appreciate what that can mean for potential people moving to this area,” he said.

Hubbell also counts good schools and the regional airport among the city’s draws to recruit new workers.

There are no parking meters downtown, Nolan noted, with some parking garages free in the evenings and on weekends.

The city today boasts more than 130 restaurants downtown, compared to about eight 25 years ago, he said.

Greenville reported slightly fewer violent crimes per resident compared to Manchester, and the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport handles more passengers, setting a record in 2019.

Greenville-Spartanburg Airport

{p dir=”ltr”}{span}The Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport — 100 miles from Charlotte and 150 from Atlanta — handles more passengers than Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.{/span} {span} {/span}

Greenville County Schools, one of the country’s 50 largest districts with around 77,000 students, ranked 13th best out of 82 South Carolina school districts in 2019, according to SchoolDigger.com.

Like Manchester, downtown Greenville boasts an independent bookstore on its main street.

“To me, it’s about the vibrancy of the downtown area,” said Ashley Warlick, a founder and current book buyer at M. Judson Booksellers. For much of the year, “downtown looks like there’s a party going on” with various community events, she said.

Jonathan Kilpatrick, 37, who worked on a laptop in the cafe area, said he was conflicted about the city growing bigger.

“I don’t think I want it to be Atlanta,” Kilpatrick said. “The small-town feel is what makes us charming.”

LESSON 5:

Make it green, make it affordable

The city is creating a 60-acre park a few blocks from Main Street along the Reedy River, upgrading a blighted area that included old warehouses and the city’s public works department.

“Unity Park at its core is our response to growth,” the mayor said.

Nearly $15 million has been raised from private sources to supplement $30 million in hospitality tax money to pay for the park, which will connect to an existing walking and biking trail leading to nearby towns.

“I think there’s some really good complement of growth in the building with green space,” Nolan said.

The GVL 2040 plan calls for preserving up to 35% of the city’s remaining vacant land.

White said it was important to build more than just office buildings, which would cause people to clear out of downtown at 5 o’clock.

Falls Park, Greenville

People enjoy the waterfall beneath Liberty Bridge at Falls Park, the focal point of downtown Greenville, S.C., and the centerpiece of the city’s transformation.

“Once you bring in residential, you get people who have a stake in the downtown, which is politically really important because they’re the ones who call ...they’re hypersensitive to everything happening downtown. That used to drive us crazy.... It’s an obnoxious thing, but it’s a good thing,” White said

Smith, the Asheville transplant, cited rooftop patios as one draw.

“They have a lot of housing options of all types,” she said.

The city puts a couple million dollars a year into a housing trust fund and donates property, so it can help shape housing plans with developers.

“It’s a leveraging device,” White said.

Immediately around the under-construction Unity Park, private developers are building condos that will sell for $850,000-plus, he said.

The city is donating nine parcels around the park to the trust fund and is “bending the curve of the market” to pressure prices downward where it can.

“Our first project is going to be a senior housing project, because that’s focused on people who grew up in the neighborhood and stayed in the neighborhood,” White said.

Real estate agent Mike Cameron said the biggest reasons people are moving to the area are low property taxes and the weather.

“You get a lot of people coming down for work because there is a lot of opportunity down here,” said Cameron, who works at Jeff Cook Real Estate. “You also get a lot of retirees.”

Two-bedroom apartments downtown can rent for around $1,500 a month.

Affordability is nearly identical for people buying new homes in the greater Greenville-Anderson area and the Manchester-Nashua areas. People earn more in New Hampshire, but housing prices are higher.

“What if we didn’t have these builders here? We would be in a world of hurt because you have all these people still moving here,” Cameron said.

Sidewalk Segways

Street signs advertise nearby businesses as people on a Segway tour gather in downtown Greenville.

LESSON 6:

Integrate industry and education

Local and state officials decided to capitalize on the region’s robust automobile industry by helping develop the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research.

Founded in 2007, the 250-acre advanced-technology center brings together private employers, including BMW, and educators to promote research and train tomorrow’s workforce.

“You’re here to steal our secrets. I admire your honesty,” Zoran Filipi, professor and chair of the Department of Automotive Engineering, told a reporter on a private tour of the center.

South Carolina has tens of thousands of jobs tied to the automotive industry, and the center was a way to sustain it.

“To translate that to New Hampshire, you need to kind of think about what are the key sectors of the economy, a particular industry, what is perhaps a niche that requires a special breed of graduates, like a special talent,” Filipi said. “And then the university can respond to that.”

In Manchester, inventor Dean Kamen established the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI) in the Millyard with more than $300 million in funding from the federal government, universities and the private sector. The University of New Hampshire at Manchester has added courses to help prepare students for careers to support ARMI.

At the Greenville center, more than 200 Clemson students pursue master’s degrees and doctorates in automotive engineering. About one in four grads stays in South Carolina to work.

During the tour, Filipi showed a reporter a sleek, purple race car that he said could reach 180 mph.

“Can’t talk about it yet,” said marketing director Ashley Boncimino.

The Greenville Technical College Center for Manufacturing Innovation, located adjacent to the Clemson research center, also has students involved in automotive research.

“You expose these technical college students, these graduates, to future technologies,” Filipi said. “You’re not just teaching them about the stuff in the past.”

LESSON 7:

Share your story

In 1999, Kevin Clougherty, then the city’s finance officer in Manchester, was among a group of city leaders who visited sports arenas in several cities, including Greenville, to collect ideas Manchester would use in building its own arena a few years later.

“For us, it was real interesting,” Clougherty recalled recently. “Getting input was great.”

White said the Greenville of 1999 is “unrecognizable” today.

The mayor said he hosts frequent delegations from other cities and sometimes travels to spread word of Greenville’s success.

“They come here because they’re horribly broken, or they come here because they’re really kind on a good track and want affirmation,” White said.

Two years ago, 75 people, including business and community leaders, from around the Lafayette, La., region visited Greenville for three days “in order to learn lessons that will help our own community attract new business and diversify our economy and build momentum around revitalizing our downtown core,” said Andre Breaux, vice president of policy initiatives and government affairs for One Acadiana, Lafayette’s chamber of commerce organization.

The group wound up establishing new economic development districts, similar to TIF districts, in Lafayette.

“We pointed to the example of Greenville’s TIF districts as a model,” Breaux said in an email.

The building blocks of Greenville’s success took decades to assemble and will take a watchful eye to protect.

Other cities looking to boost their own economic fortunes could benefit from gaining a fresh perspective.

“For a lot of cities, it helps to have outside eyes,” the mayor said.

What’s Working, a series exploring solutions for New Hampshire’s workforce needs, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and is funded by Eversource, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the New Hampshire College & University Council, Northeast Delta Dental and the New Hampshire Coalition for Business and Education. Contact reporter Michael Cousineau at mcousineau@unionleader.com. To read stories in the series, visit unionleader.com/whatsworking.

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