Spartanburg Before (this ought to sound familiar)
“Any photograph taken prior to 1950 displays a Spartanburg unlike the one we know today. In these pictures, Morgan Square is a true town center, people walk along the sidewalks, and even at night storefronts and neon signs light the streets. In the year 2001, Morgan Square is a parking lot, people rarely even drive (much less walk) through downtown and the same storefronts are boarded over.
Statistics on the Chamber of Commerce website tell the story: the city’s population has been declining for the past thirty years, with the highest loss occurring in the past ten. In 1990, the city’s population numbered some 43,479 residents. In 2000 that number had dropped by nine percent to 39,673 residents, a significant loss. Interestingly, the city experienced almost no growth between 1970 and 1990, with the population remaining around 44,000 residents.”
“I have a passion for downtown. It’s the heart and soul of Spartanburg. When I first started working here, so many buildings were boarded up. Now, downtown is the place to be. A lot of small businesses have come downtown. Once it started, it became contagious. One restaurant opened, then Abby’s Grill, then Ellis An American Bistro, and it’s continued. There are only a handful of empty buildings now; there used to be nearly half.”
“It’s a different kind of business atmosphere, thriving in its own right. A few merchants, including apparel retailers Price’s Store for Men and Carolina Cash, have been Spartanburg fixtures for generations. Most others are more recent. “Years ago, it was all pretty much retail – Belk’s, Woolworth’s,” Merck reflects. “There’s a unique mix downtown now. It’s truly a new Spartanburg.”
In 1983, Spartanburg began a facade grant program to restore downtown buildings to their original form. Since 2000, a downtown Renaissance Project has encouraged over $170 million in investment and brought 1200 jobs to the central business district, including a new Spartanburg Marriott Conference Hotel downtown that is within 2 blocks of Wofford’s campus.
When city leaders talk about downtown development these days, they generally begin with the Renaissance Park project, the most extensive public/private development in Spartanburg history. The revitalization included a 250-room Marriott hotel/conference center. Workers broke ground in October 2002 on the Marriott, and it opened in autumn 2003. Other assets of $120-million Renaissance Park will be pedestrian malls, offices, an arts center, nature trails and residential communities, with a nine-hole executive golf course in the center.
“The Renaissance Park project was huge for us,” says Jules Bryant, executive director of the Spartanburg Convention & Visitors Bureau(CVB). “It was the cornerstone of redevelopment downtown. The large hotel allowed us to attract conventions we’ve had to turn away. Having that many people created a new demand for restaurants and shopping.”
Money magazine has called Spartanburg one of the “Four Booming Locales Where You Can Find a Job and Live Easy.” Home to six institutions of higher education, and the highest per capita college student population in any major city in the state, Spartanburg can also call itself “South Carolina’s College Town.”
James E. Talley, a native son and career educator who joined City Council in 1982 and later served two terms as mayor, says the greatest change Spartanburg has undergone during the last two decades is intangible. “The biggest difference is the change of attitude toward progress and development. For a long time the city was kind of apathetic about trying new things and finding new ways to get things done. We’ve gone from being a city where people thought ‘We can’t do that’ to an attitude of ‘I think I can-I know I can.’ Peo-ple started pulling together to make sure Spartanburg is recognized for the part it’s playing in the progress of the upstate.”
“There is this incredible energy sweeping over Spartanburg right now in which so many individuals and groups want to do their part in contributing to the betterment of this community,” says Mayor Bill Barnet. “Construction activity is everywhere you turn and new projects are waiting in the wings to begin. Private citizens are donating sculptures and seeking sponsors to pay for beautification projects. Efforts are well underway to raise the funds to build a world-class center for performing and visual fine arts. Spartanburg is becoming truly a world-class community.”
My Walk Away Lessons:
1. The City of Spartanburg Got Aggressive in Economic Redevelopment
2. The City Leveraged the University Presence in the Area
3. The Community Rallied Behind Redevelopment
4. Spartanburg had to Spend Money To Make Money
5. The City Used A Hotel Conference Center to Jump Start Economic Renewal