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  • Courtesy Greenville Chamber The Eugenia Duke Bridge, constructed in 2010 , serves as a walkway in Greenville, S.C., to connect the Peace Center and RiverPlace. Local leaders are visiting Greenville this week to gather potential ideas for Fort Wayne.

  • Courtesy Greenville Chamber Hidden for more than 40 years, the Reedy River Falls were obscured by the Camperdown Bridge until its removal in 2002. The bridge was replaced with the pedestrian-friendly Liberty Bridge.

  • Courtesy of the Greenville Chamber The Eugenia Duke Bridge was constructed in 2010 and given its namesake in 2018 to honor the founder of Duke’s Mayonnaise and one of Greenville’s first businesswomen. It serves as a walkway to connect the Peace Center and RiverPlace. Wyche Pavilion, Duke’s Mayonnaise’s first factory, can be seen in the background and now hosts concerts, festivals and private events.

  • Becker

  • Hyatt

Sunday, August 19, 2018 1:00 am

Where waterfalls run downtown

City delegation visiting SC town to see its success

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

The Reedy River runs through downtown Greenville, South Carolina.

But it wasn't until local leaders removed a four-lane road and replaced it with a pedestrian bridge in 2004 that a multilayered waterfall became the city center's star attraction.

“After it was done, things shifted,” Hank Hyatt recalled. “(Residents) said, 'Why didn't you do this before? What's next?'”

As senior vice president of economic competitiveness for the Greenville Chamber, Hyatt has seen the city blossom into a tourist mecca since he moved there 21 years ago.

Greenville also attracts frequent visits by community leaders from around the country, including a 24-member delegation from Fort Wayne visiting this week to learn more about how public-private partnerships can fast-track economic development.

Investment in Greenville has been led by the private sector, with taxpayer dollars used to push deals over the finish line, Hyatt said. Elected officials work with private investors to achieve a shared vision.

“Every five years, Greenville is a different community,” he added.

Hyatt doesn't mind doing a bit of bragging. When the New York Times travel staff compiled a list of the 52 places worldwide that its readers should visit in 2017 – a list that included Madagascar, Marrakesh and Morocco – Greenville made the cut.

The city has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and Travel + Leisure magazine. Conde Nast readers voted it No. 3 in the best small U.S. city category. Men's Journal named Greenville, which has more than 30 waterfalls, one of the 18 Coolest Towns in America.

Southern-fried success

Greenville, the center of a metropolitan area with a population of about 900,000, lies about 100 miles northwest of state capital Columbia near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Because state law restricts annexation, Greenville's borders can't expand. The city's official population is about 80,000, making it the sixth-largest city in South Carolina.

When Greenville grows, it grows upward, fueling a boom of downtown high-rise buildings, Cheri Becker said. As Greater Fort Wayne's vice president of investor services and programs, Becker organized the trip officials are taking Wednesday through Friday.

The itinerary includes meetings with Greenville city, business and economic development leaders. Topics they plan to discuss include talent attraction and retention, supporting entrepreneurship, the role of the arts and public-private partnerships.

Becker also built in time to tour the downtown and booked the group in a hotel near the city's riverfront development.

“We'll experience it. We're not just going to hear about it,” she said. “We're looking forward to a pretty robust set of meetings. We've got a busy couple of days.”

Greenville's downtown is anchored by an arena, a performing arts center and a ballpark that's home to the Greenville Drive, the Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Hotels have also been sprouting up, doubling the number of available rooms in recent years. Five downtown hotels are under construction with three more planned.

The city's efforts to attract young, talented workers are paying off. Greenville's population has increased 20 percent over the past decade and it has a median age of less than 36.

Community leaders – elected and unelected – have led the process, Hyatt said. They include six-term Mayor Knox White and the heads of various arts groups.

“We call it our 30-year, overnight success story,” Hyatt said of the city's evolution. “It looks like we've always been this way, but we haven't.”

A charmed city

Stroll along the streets of downtown Greenville and you might be surprised by the number of languages you hear.

Becker, who lived in Greenville about five years, described the Southern city as surprisingly cosmopolitan, with private schools providing full curriculums in French, German and Japanese to the children of executives employed by Michelin, BMW and Fuji.

The region is home to more than 460 foreign-owned firms, according to the Upstate South Carolina Alliance website.

Greenville doubles down on its commitment to inclusivity on its tourism website by offering visitors the option of translating it into any one of 65 languages, including Afrikaans, Belarusian, Hindi and Persian.

A nonprofit, Greenville Events, organizes and promotes activities that cater to seemingly every special interest and age range. 

“They recognize that bringing people out and about is really good for the quality of life,” Becker said.

Becker was the founding executive director of the Children's Museum of the Upstate in Greenville. Her husband, Mark, a consultant who was formerly Fort Wayne's deputy mayor, worked for Greenville's chamber of commerce.

Annual events are also a significant draw for the city. Greenville hosts the four-day Euphoria Food, Wine and Music festival every September. Furman University attracts visitors every Memorial Day weekend for its Gallabrae Scottish Games. This year, the FEI World Equestrian Games also were in Greenville, which averages 220 sunny days a year.

Year round, the BMW Performance Driving School attracts car lovers who want the thrill of speeding around a racetrack and honing their skills. 

Sports and recreation receive special emphasis in Greenville, which caters to everyone from weekend warriors to professional players.

The area boasts an aquatic complex, three water parks and tournament-quality athletic fields for baseball, football, soccer and lacrosse. A 22-mile greenway system draws runners, bikers and walkers daily.

Best practices

Greenville is thriving now because of strategic decisions its leaders have made over the past 30 years.

The city that fueled its boom on public-private partnerships doesn't have to funnel taxpayer money into the developments as often anymore because outside investment has poured in, Becker said.

Nancy Whitworth, Greenville's economic development director, said public officials have to stay focused on what they're trying to achieve. In general, it's about improving the community, she said.

Greenville leaders' pressing issue now is increasing the amount of affordable housing.

“Sometimes, you've got to move that needle a little more than you're comfortable with,” she said, referring to how much taxpayer money is needed to get some pivotal projects off the ground.

When one or two projects didn't materialize as expected, city officials didn't give up, Hyatt said. Instead, they partnered with different developers to achieve desired results.

Whitworth once had to take over a failing project in the 1990s. She recalled the experience as grueling and one that has made her an effective bridge between the city and developers.

Although public servants want to spend taxpayer money carefully, they also need to work with developers and not against them, Whitworth said. 

Trust and transparency are critical, she said. Private investors take a risk when they tackle major developments.   

“At the end of the day, you want them to make money,” she said, adding that successful firms won't partner with governments if the deals aren't profitable.

When deciding whether to support a public-private project, elected officials should ask themselves what future development could follow if the project is completed, Whitworth said. That thinking has persuaded Greenville to invest in public spaces, including parks, and parking garages.

“The trick in all of this,” she said, “is knowing it doesn't all happen overnight. You need to have patience.”

sslater@jg.net