First impressions of Greenville offer insights, challenges during Tallahassee Chamber trip

From the Tallahassee Democrat

GREENVILLE — When Sue Dick, president and CEO of Tallahassee’s Chamber of Commerce, asked first-time trip members on Monday to stand, more than half of room was on its feet.

It was a statement. With newly elected city and county commissioners, a new mayor and fresh executives and developers, the group was eager to dive in to the first leg of the three-day, Chamber-sponsored trip to one of the most transformed and sought after communities in the South.

Some already had gotten the lay of the land, arriving in Greenville as early as Saturday, walking downtown and soaking in the sights: Main Street, the Children’s Museum of the Upstate and a children’s park born from dead space under a bridge.

They’d formed some first impressions when a panel discussion kicked off Monday’s line-up of activities and tours. A frank discussion ensued. Greenville officials, representing the private, public and nonprofit sector, lifted the veil behind various projects that changed Greenville into a city the boasts five million visitors per year and brings in $1.5 billion in economic return.

The panel talked about the “kicking and screaming” challenge of shedding the city’s textile identity after the mills shuttered and left a devastated downtown.

Land was dirt cheap, said Bob Hughes, a real estate developer behind several major projects that helped revitalize the area. One downtown building, Hughes said, cost just $4 per square foot — an unbelievable price tag considering how much the city has since grown.

“Our downtown hit rock bottom,” he said.

Trip attendees peppered the panel with questions about how the city approaches affordable housing in downtown developments, BMW’s impact on the city’s economy and what other businesses and efforts have been a catalyst for growth.

Carlos Phillips, president of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, said about 15 communities visit each year hoping to learn about his city’s “secret sauce.” He advised the Tallahassee delegation to embrace its identity as a government town.

“I heard a lot about Tallahassee as a government community almost as if that was bad,” he said, mentioning Atlanta, Nashville, Tennessee, and Raleigh, North Carolina, as examples of vibrant capital cities.

“Don’t use that government town as an anchor,” Phillips said. “It can be a benefit. You have access to a lot of great people there in Tallahassee. Use that asset of having the center of state government there to help your community prosper.”

Phillips said economic equity has become Greenville’s priority. Like Leon County, Greenville County has a high number of children living in poverty and a low rate of economic upward mobility. He highlighted efforts to acknowledge and address the economic divide, working through public-private partnerships in collaboration with nonprofits to combat the issue.

“A child born into poverty doesn’t have as good a chance as other kids making it out of poverty,” Phillips said. “In Greenville, we have accepted the data so the folks around the room at the table agree the data is right … We can’t argue the data anymore.”

Dick said Tallahassee officials recognize the challenges of poverty and how it factors into economic growth. She pointed to the United Way’s new strategic plan to spent its limited resources on the working poor.

“As a community, it’s imperative that we … have a sense of urgency and realize we are a great community and we can always strive for excellence,” she said.

One of Dick’s other takeaways from the first day of the trip was Greenville’s success in looking toward the future and executing the vision.

“You get the feeling that they’re continuing to think about, ‘OK, what’s next? What are we going to do to better tomorrow,” she said.

Trip first-timer Brian Sealey, a real estate company owner, wished the Chamber’s tour agenda included stops that reflected diversity.

“If we’re ever going to grow as a community, we have to make sure we bring everybody’s voice to the table,” he said.

Sealey said that starts with “bridging the divide.” Sealey said he was struck by Greenville’s effort to address racial equity by making it a part of a larger community conversation.

“We have to make sure that every time we have discussions and trips like these we have things on the agenda that shows we’re reaching out to everybody,” he said.”(Greenville has) touchy issues about race and gentrification, but they are not afraid to talk about it in a collaborative way.”

Steve Ghahzini, vice president of Premier Homes, the developer behind the Canopy at Welaunee development in northeast Tallahassee, said he was impressed by Greenville’s decision to reroute its highway so its downtown waterfall could become a centerpiece.

“They have done a very good job in my opinion and we need to learn from other cities that have been successful. We shouldn’t be scared to make a bold decision,” he said. “We do have a jewel in our downtown, Cascades Park. Our community spent a lot of money, in a good way, to clean up the brown field.”

Monday’s activities also included talks about Greenville’s economic history, including how its Hyatt Hotel sparked its downtown revitalization, and the city’s approach to tourism. By the afternoon, the Fluor Field Minor League Baseball facility was the backdrop for afternoon panel discussions on expanding targeted industries and using sports, the arts and entertainment as community assets.