Throughout the holiday week, YourObserver.com will be counting down the top 12 stories of 2011 (one from each month) from our Longboat, East County and Sarasota Observers and the Pelican Press. Check back each day for a reprinting — along with any relevant updates — of the biggest news items of the year.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED SEPT. 29, 2011
The city of Greenville, S.C., may have been unconventional in its approach to revitalize its aging downtown, but it’s economic development director said the methods paid off in the long run.
Nancy Whitworth, director of economic development for the city of Greenville, S.C., told those in attendance at a Wednesday, Sept. 29, Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce luncheon that if Greenville can overcome its obstacles, so can any city.
Calling the city of Greenville “vibrant” in the 1960s, Whitworth said that it turned into a “boring downtown with parallel parking and nothing to do there” in the 1970s.
The city’s downtown core began its transformation by planting trees that line its Main Street and replacing parallel parking with more motorist-friendly diagonal parking.
Those two decisions paid dividends.
“Believe it or not, the city of Greenville doesn’t have pretty buildings,” Whitworth said. “The trees hid the ugly, vacant buildings, which was the catalyst for a new downtown and occupied buildings.”
Next, Whitworth said, came some controversial decisions from city leaders.
First, the city bought a piece of land and attracted a Hyatt Regency to the site. The city of Sarasota is trying to do something similar with a sliver of land next to the Palm Avenue parking garage.
Next, the city acquired land across from its City Hall and built a performing-arts center there.
The city also bought land and built a public farmers market that Whitworth said “failed miserably.”
“We took a leap of faith and it didn’t work,” Whitworth said. “But we brought in a consultant who helped us transform it into what today has become downtown’s most popular mixed-use development for restaurants and retail shops.”
The city also bought land for a sports coliseum and built a new baseball field for minor league play.
And the city’s most controversial move to date involved Greenville buying lots behind the forgotten Reedy River.
“We have a river that took us 90 years to utilize and embrace,” Whitworth said.
With the promise that a private developer would build a major mixed-use development on the river, the Greenville City Council bought the lots, condemned the properties and cleaned up the river.
“The private sector provided a safety net for elected officials to stick to their guns and follow through on an arduous process that included a costly legal battle,” Whitworth said. “Today, we have a beautiful condo/office/restaurant/retail center that brought us back to the river.”
Whitworth said that without the private sector’s help, Greenville would not be what it is today.
“It’s been controversial, but it’s worked for us,” said Whitworth, who said her city has formed partnerships with numerous organizations, including the local garden club, to help spruce up their parks. “I have often said that the public sector is the spark plug, but the private sector is the engine.”
Today, Whitworth said the city’s only major problem is trying to find more affordable downtown housing for its younger generation.
“The city’s revitalization has priced them out of downtown,” Whitworth said.
To avoid downtown parking problems, the city of Greenville has also built public parking garages and parking lots to coincide with private-sector downtown projects.
And to attract residents who don’t live within the downtown core, the city has created projects such as “Mice On Main,” an interactive sculpture project that spurred city of Sarasota art officials to seek approval for a similar interactive art project.
“You have to do things that don’t take a lot of money like bells in the trees and installing wayfinding signs and statues to get people interested in walking downtown,” Whitworth said. “The goal is to engage people.”
Whitworth, who received a tour of Sarasota the day before, praised the approximately 50 people in attendance on what she perceives as a city that’s “leaps and bounds” ahead of where Greenville once was.
“We had a dying downtown on our hands,” Whitworth said. “You don’t have that. You have a beautiful downtown that other cities would die for.”
Whitworth urged city residents and officials to think about the best way to connect Sarasota’s assets.
“It’s important to have a vision, but you must be able to convert that vision into reality,” Whitworth said. “In the process, you will connect your downtown neighborhoods back into downtown and receive more revitalization and renovation. You have to have a healthy core before you can spin out.”
Sarasota Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown said Whitworth’s presentation was helpful and helped solidify his belief the city is headed in the right direction.
“We already have many of the assets that Greenville had to work to attain,” Brown said. “I think we’re heading in the right direction.”