Greenville-inspired community conversation draws attention to update downtown master plan

From the Tallahassee Democrat

Last month’s delegation trip to Greenville, South Carolina, made local movers and shakers take a hard look at Tallahassee’s downtown.

It’s missing some key connections between emerging districts and destinations, several attendees said at Wednesday’s trip-inspired community conversation. For example, some said there isn’t an easy, pedestrian-friendly way to get from downtown to Midtown.

Hosted by the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, the event allowed elected and business leaders to hear presentations on downtown’s evolution and brainstorm. Most of them walked away declaring a need for a downtown master plan.

“I think right now our downtown master plan is all about the dirt, and what you can put on the dirt,” said Todd Sperry, vice president and CFO of Oliver Sperry Renovation. “What we’re going through right now is what’s going to live on the dirt if you have a corridor for pedestrians.”

Greenville, located between Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, is home to about 65,200 residents, with an average age of 35.9 years old, according to city demographics. It boasts the highest level of foreign capital investment per capita in the United States, with more than 250 international firms from 26 nations either based or with locations in the city, including BMW and Michelin.

The Chamber chose Greenville because of its economic comeback story from being a shattered textile city leveled by the mass shutdown of its mills to a manufacturing hub with robust tourism.

Many say Tallahassee is on the verge of an economic breakthrough but needs a boost, and point to the capital city’s downtown as a launch pad. Several downtown projects will change the skyline.

The $158-million Cascades Project will bring brownstones, apartments, commercial space and AC Hotels by Marriott to the edge of Cascades Park. A few blocks away on Calhoun Street, the $90-million Washington Square project will bring office space, a roof-top lounge and Loews Hotel.

“I think part of the hurdle for us is we have so many organizations that are interested in getting involved, and we need to make sure that everybody is on the same page,” Mayor John Dailey said. “We’ll get there. We’re not going to solve that in one meeting, or two meetings, but we’ll get there.”

Based on Wednesday’s conversation, Dailey said there was general interest planning for downtown, public art, retail, restaurants and historical preservation. He believed a revision to the master plan could be done in 12 to 18 months.

“We have a physical plan for our downtown. What it appears to be lacking is the connectivity or the idea of the connectivity of all of the amenities we have in our community,” Assistant City Manager Wayne Tedder said.

Existing master plans cover greenways and bike trails and will be funded through incoming money from the Blueprint sales tax extension next year. Tedder said those plans can be overlayed  to include community amenities.

Once that’s done, he said there’s a need to find gaps that weren’t part of the original downtown master plan, which was last updated in 1992.

“We need to connect FSU and FAMU through physical redevelopment and physical connections,” Tedder said. “For the most part, all of these areas are connected. Now the ideas is does there need to be expanded connectivity?”

The Chamber committed to doing three local tours in 90 days. The next community conversation will be June 27 and centered on neighborhood and community development. The last one will be July 23 will be on the airport and economic development at the Tallahassee International Airport.

At Wednesday’s event, other issues discussed were the need to bring in more young professionals for ideas and create a sense of inclusion downtown. Attendees were mindful however, that Greenville was able to reinvent itself in large part because of its weighty corporate presence, which Tallahassee lacks.

County Commissioner Kristin Dozier said she was encouraged by the conversation linking past efforts to the future.

“We’ve all been in hundreds of meetings and received a good update, and that was it,” Dozier said. “We come back the next year, and we hear the same good update.”

However, Dozier said, she sees the Downtown Improvement Authority playing a bigger role in communicating with various groups, business and key players downtown. She said, “that’s something we’ve really needed for a long time.”

“We’ve needed a master plan endorsed by the city, county and the community that will guide us,” she added. “We’ve talked about these ideas for a long time, but we make decisions project by project. I’m excited about the conversation, because it sounds like, more than ever, we recognize that master plan will help guide us.”

Elizabeth Emmanuel, who heads the DIA, said Greenville told its story well and stuck to its brand. She encouraged the crowd to think in five’s about Tallahassee’s story: community assets, community trustees, local celebrities, foods and historical events.

“I’m really excited to see where today takes us as a community,” Emmanuel said.

Contact TaMaryn Waters at or follow @TaMarynWaters on Twitter.