It’s 8 a.m. and downtown Greenville is waking up from a well-deserved night’s rest. The sun is shining on tree-lined Main Street where shops, art galleries, restaurants and other businesses in every store front open for a busy day. Coffee is brewing and so are the high hopes of Greenvillians streaming into downtown for another day’s work. Many Greenvillians would say mornings like this in their downtown required decades of work and planning.
Downtown Greenville’s revitalization began with a development plan commissioned by community leaders in 1968. This plan to revive Greenville’s blighted Main Street was implemented in 1979. Main Street was narrowed to two lanes with sidewalks installed, trees planted and space allotted for outdoor dining. This pedestrian-friendly plan sparked interest in downtown Greenville, but the first catalyst for extensive revitalization was the Hyatt Regency Hotel’s completion in 1982.
According to the city of Greenville’s website, this was just the beginning of downtown’s rebirth. In 1987, with the framework of downtown Greenville’s revival in place, community leaders contracted with Land Design/Research Inc. to create a downtown redevelopment strategy. This Maryland-based consulting firm slated three areas, including the Reedy River Falls, for redevelopment. The city of Greenville’s website says this was the first time the Reedy River was identified as a significant asset to downtown.
In 1991, the second catalyst for downtown Greenville’s revitalization opened. Greenvillians felt the Peace Center for the Performing Arts breathed new life into desolate Main Street. It was not only a catalyst for downtown’s revitalization, but it also jumpstarted a new cultural economy. Kimberly Gibbs, director of arts education at the Metropolitan Arts Council in downtown Greenville, is a lifetime Greenvillian who watched this story unfold.
“Greenville has a strong belief in the tie between creativity, the arts, the economy and driving tourism through destinations in the arts,” Gibbs said. “Greenville has done a great job of having that vision since really the late ‘90s.”
A 1993 graduate of Greenville’s Fine Arts Center, Gibbs recalled the birth of downtown’s cultural economy. “There wasn’t any restaurants to eat in downtown in the late ‘90s, let alone any real art offerings,” she said. “Once you get into 2000, you start getting restaurants downtown, you’re getting ‘Downtown Alive,’ and the actual city itself is creating art and cultural activities to draw people into downtown.”
One of downtown Greenville’s many weekly events, “Downtown Alive,” is a free concert series featuring a cultural mix of live music. Erin Turner, director of marketing at the Metropolitan Arts Council, feels it is a must-see weekly event. She says, “I like that the city chooses a diverse lineup each season, there is truly a night for everyone.”
Gibbs says many people don’t realize this event serves the greater purpose of raising money for the Metropolitan Arts Council. “All the money from the beer sales goes to fund the arts,” she says. “‘Downtown Alive’ creates something to do, but then it also is funding the arts, which creates more things to do which brings more people downtown.”
Gibbs says downtown Greenville’s cyclical funding of the arts, coupled with integrated artistic planning into its revitalization, makes it a new tourist destination. Downtown Greenville’s cultural and economic rebirth has brought in not only tourists, but also former residents.
Claire Billingsley, editor-in-chief of The Greenville Journal, grew up in the area and skeptically moved home from New York City in 2015. Her skepticism and memories of the desolate downtown Greenville of her youth faded after her move. “When I moved back, I hardly recognized the place to be honest,” she says. “With the number of people who are on the streets during all hours of the week and weekend, the hustle and bustle makes you feel like you’re in a place with a robust population.”
Billingsley feels downtown Greenville is now a safe place to go when you want to do something, unlike when she was a teenager in the ‘90s. Falls Park on the Reedy, the shining centerpiece of downtown, used to be a negative point for Greenville according to Billingsley. She says, “it had a reputation in that time of you don’t go there because it’s not safe.”
She now lives in a historic neighborhood close to downtown and enjoys being part of the community. According to Billingsley, her favorite thing about downtown is being able to walk the streets with her family. While the newly-found safety of downtown allows for this, she feels there are still problems. Billingsley helps address them at The Greenville Journal.
She says, “we’ll continue putting coverage of economic development and growth of downtown at the forefront of our coverage and the implications of what that means.” Gibbs and Billingsley both feel the cost of living downtown is one implication. Billingsley says the city is mitigating the issue with construction of affordable housing units at Unity Park, a downtown park slated for completion in 2020.
While downtown is having problems with affordable housing, it’s still attracting newcomers and even people from the suburbs.
Diane Leshman, a former resident of Greenville’s Thornblade neighborhood since 1993, moved downtown with her husband, Jeffrey, in 2016. When explaining why she says, “a total lifestyle change would make downsizing more exciting.” She feels this lifestyle change allows her to enjoy life more.
“It makes us feel like we went back into our youth,” she says. “Downtown has an international flavor that isn’t stale or old.” Leshman’s frustrations over downtown’s past business closures and constant safety issues are gone. She feels the youthful energy of downtown now makes it a happy and happening place to live.
Downtown Greenville’s revitalization spreads the hope of progress not only to its own community, but also to other communities wanting change.
According to Rebecca Robins, head of community outreach for downtown’s Coffee Underground, the revitalization is improving her hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee. She says, “the town I grew up in took similar plans to the Reedy River and they’ve redone their downtown, using Greenville as a reference.”
Greenvillians feel their visions of change revived downtown and their local app, iOnGreenville, has carried it into the 21st century. Download the app and you’ll see how from tired to trendy, downtown Greenville came back from the brink.