GREENVILLE, S.C. — In the early 1970s, downtown Greenville "was pretty much a dead zone," Nancy Whitworth, the city's economic development director, told 193 visitors from Commerce Lexington on Thursday, as she showed old pictures of a four-lane Main Street with sun-baked sidewalks.
After her morning talk, the visitors took a walk down a very different Main Street, the work of three decades of serious planning, investment, public-private partnerships and, more than anything, a consistent vision of pedestrian-friendly beauty that the South Carolina city's leaders were trying to achieve.
The first champion of the effort was longtime Mayor Max Heller, who died Monday at age 92. An Austrian Jew who moved to Greenville from his native country to escape the Nazis in 1938, his European background led him to realize the way to bring life back downtown was to make it a beautiful, inviting place where people wanted to spend time.
Main Street was reduced to two lanes and diagonal parking and trees were added. Those trees are large now, providing a beautiful, shaded canopy for sidewalk dining for nearly 100 restaurants in the city center.
The revitalization took place over many years due to strong city leadership coupled with support from the business community and private developers. Several public-private anchor projects over the years attracted private investment around them.
"Our public sector is willing to step up and take risks, and the private sector is willing to back them up," Whitworth said. "It takes both."
The first anchor project was a Hyatt Regency hotel, where the Commerce Lexington group is staying. Others have included a privately financed baseball stadium and a performing arts center.
But perhaps the two most spectacular projects were River Place and Falls Park, both built along a once-neglected stretch of the Reedy River in what officials said used to be one of the seediest parts of Greenville.
River Place is an air-rights project; the city owns the land and a $14 million parking garage, but developer Bob Hughes put together the mixed-use development of several buildings on top of it, which represents more than $63 million in private investment.
"It's impressive," Lexington developer Dudley Webb said after Hughes gave the group a tour.
Falls Park was once a gulch with a 1960s concrete highway bridge that hid a waterfall. Knox White, who has been Greenville's mayor for 15 years, said the city spent $1 million to remove the ugly bridge, then spent millions more to turn the gulch into a garden-like park with an amazing pedestrian suspension bridge over the falls.
As he walked the Lexington visitors over the bridge on a beautiful Thursday afternoon, the park was filled with people. Dozens of children waded at the foot of the falls.
"Most people in Greenville hadn't seen the waterfall before we built the park," White said. "Now, you can come down here at 10 o'clock at night and there will still be people in the park."