All across South Carolina, cities and towns are reimagining their decrepit and abandoned downtown areas into pedestrian-friendly streetscapes with crosswalks and planted medians.
“In almost any town, your traditional downtown area is the only part of town that is distinctly and uniquely yours,” said Moncks Corner town planner Doug Polen.
Until World War II, Main Streets, which typically had a blend of housing, retail and public spaces, were the social and commercial hubs of communities, according to the Project for Public Places.
But then came suburban sprawl, with shopping malls, low-density neighborhoods and a desire to get to places fast by automobile. Downtowns started dying, in many cases leaving behind boarded-up ghost towns.
Now the pendulum is swinging back, and many municipalities are looking to transform shuttered factories, warehouses and other historic buildings into mixed-use development with shops, restaurants, cultural venues and housing.
“We’re seeing a lot more activity,” said Beppie LeGrand, who provides technical assistance in community development and downtown revitalization for 18 cities and towns as manager of Main Street South Carolina, a service of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.
Municipalities are aware that, when a prospective industry visits, “one of the first places they want to go is downtown because they want to see what the quality of life is in a community.”
The model program
Statewide, many experts point to Greenville as a prime example. It has been lauded in several national publications for the successful revitalization of its declining city center into a popular Upstate destination for shopping, dining and entertainment.
Greenville's vision started 50 years ago. The revitalized downtown now includes wider sidewalks, outdoor plazas and narrow, tree-lined roads designed to encourage visitors to park their cars and meander through the city.
“Towns have to have a strong economic base in their downtown to encourage retention of businesses that are already there and new businesses to come there,” LeGrand said. “We always say, if you don’t have a strong core, it’s hard to have anything to build on.”
To fund projects, municipalities often turn to collaborations between the government and the private sector. Projects with public-private partnerships have a greater likelihood of getting completed on time and on budget, according to a 2016 study by Syracuse University.
But they require political commitment.
Such a funding method was key in several of Greenville’s downtown efforts, according to officials. It is also behind Georgetown’s planned $15 million boutique hotel and restaurant that the city plans to break ground on next year, economic development director Gloria Bromell Tinubu said.
But the public-private funding approach also helped sink plans to build a $30 million boutique hotel complex in downtown Summerville, causing a backlash in the town's 2015 election that unseated Mayor Bill Collins. An ongoing lawsuit was brought by residents who also complained about the project's size and potential traffic. The developer also has sued the town for $13 million he alleges he's owed.
Following the leaders
Hanahan, which is not part of the Main Street program, recently launched the final project in its two-decade-long redevelopment plan: the revitalization of its town center, Yeamans Hall Road, from Remount to Sledge Street.
“We hope private investment follows public investment,” said Johnny Cribb, administrator of the Berkeley County city. Existing business owners are excited about coming improvements, and there's been early interest from new businesses, he said.
“We’re hoping to have the same success that everybody else has had,” Cribb said, pointing to the rebound of North Charleston's East Montague Avenue, just south of Hanahan.
When he taught at North Charleston High in the mid-1990s, Cribb said, “Nobody was driving to downtown North Charleston to do anything. Mayor (Keith) Summey and their council had a great vision and some people probably told them they were crazy. Well, now you’ve got families from Mount Pleasant to Summerville getting dressed up on a Friday night to go to downtown North Charleston to have dinner.”
Cultural events, festivals, farmers markets, and special late-night shopping events help draw people to the spaces after hours, city officials said.
Tinubu of Georgetown said said those kinds of events "are the best thing we’ve had for getting people into the city from all over the Southeast.” The small coastal city has bounced back from a devastating fire that destroyed eight buildings in its historic district in 2013 and, more recently, flooding from September’s Tropical Storm Irma.
"At the end of the day, it’s about the economic impact,” Tinubu said. “Retail is our primary source of income because we don’t have as big a manufacturing base as we used to have. We want our businesses to thrive because we depend heavily on tourism for a lot of the income that comes into the city.”
Downtown Moncks Corner’s renewal has been fueled by a 52-acre municipal recreation complex on a former lumberyard site on East Main Street. The complex regularly attracts youth travel leagues as well as local adult teams, Polen said.
Since the fields opened in 2014, several restaurants and businesses have moved to Main Street, and more are coming, Polen said. The town has added aesthetic touches such as flowers, banners and murals.
“We want to make people realize there’s stuff to do here,” Polen said. “You don’t have to go to Charleston. You don’t have to go to Goose Creek or Summerville. There are things that are here that are worth your time.”