Tom Eblen: Revival of Greenville, S.C., could hold lessons for Lexington

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

This is the week each year when Commerce Lexington takes several dozen business and civic leaders to another city for three days of networking and brainstorming about how to improve Lexington.

Nearly 200 people are leaving on chartered jets Wednesday morning for Greenville, the largest city in the Upstate region of South Carolina. Although a much smaller city than Lexington, Greenville is the center of a metro area with 172,000 more people.

The annual "leadership visit" went to Greenville in 1995, but Commerce Lexington thought the city was worth a second look. Greenville has continued to prosper, thanks to smart economic development, good urban planning and successful public-private partnerships.

The city that once called itself "textile capital of the world" is now home to a mix of companies, many from Europe, including BMW and Michelin. A big part of Greenville's strategy was revitalizing its urban core and improving the quality of life.

"They focused on what makes the city unique and special," said Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, whose family-owned construction company helped build BMW's facilities there. "It's become a city that reaches out globally, not a big city but a city with a modern, cosmopolitan sense."

Greenville's downtown revitalization was sparked in the 1970s by a mayor who immigrated from Austria. He thought a beautiful, pedestrian-friendly European approach was a good antidote to the car-centric, asphalt-everywhere path that had contributed to urban decay.

That meant downsizing some streets, adding trees, restoring old buildings and removing a highway bridge over a neglected gulch of the Reedy River. The river was cleaned, the gulch transformed into a park and the four-lane bridge replaced by a unique pedestrian bridge.

"They have reclaimed that whole space, and it has had an amazing effect on the downtown," said Jeanne Gang, the renowned Chicago architect whom Dudley Webb recently hired to redesign the stalled CentrePointe project in downtown Lexington. "They have an amazing set of beautiful urban elements that they've done over time."

Gang's firm, Studio Gang Architects, is completing designs for two signature projects in Greenville: Reedy Square and the Blue Wall Center.

Reedy Square will be the "town square" that Greenville hasn't had, plus a showcase for regional attractions and culture. "It's both a place for the locals to go hang out and a place that turns visitors on to what all there is to do in the Upstate," Gang said.

Blue Wall Center, a 175-acre area at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, will have a visitors center, gardens and trails for people to get a taste of the local mountains. "We've been calling it speed-dating with nature," Gang said. "It's both a landscape and a building that work together to be this kind of visitor destination."

Lexington can learn some things from Greenville, but how much of that learning will be converted into action? That is a frequent criticism of these trips — at least by people who don't go on them.

Commerce Lexington President Bob Quick said there has been action. For example, Lexington's Thursday Night Live and Minority Business Development programs began with ideas from the 1995 Greenville trip. "Sometimes it takes years for things to come together," he said.

Last year, Commerce Lexington went to Pittsburgh with Greater Louisville Inc. The most popular idea from Pittsburgh — replicating Bill Strickland's Manchester Bidwell program for inspiring and teaching job skills to young people — has been stalled by the weak economy, Quick said.

But many of Manchester Bidwell's concepts will be used in the Fayette County Public Schools' new agri-science vocational program, which begins this fall on Leestown Road. "Some of the things that we're going to be doing are very similar to what Strickland is doing," outgoing Superintendent Stu Silberman said.

Quick said the biggest benefit from last year's trip has been stronger relationships among leaders in Lexington and Louisville, which has led to more cooperation on common issues and economic development initiatives.

Networking is always the biggest benefit of these trips. Sometimes it takes getting away from work and the patterns of everyday life to build new relationships that will help turn good ideas into successful action.

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