Model for Montgomery: City gets revamping ideas 1/3

Posted by Bryan Henry  -  bio | email

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Greenville, South Carolina. Population? 60,000, tucked away at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in what's known around here as the Upstate.

But locals will tell you their crown jewel is much closer to the ground. Main Street which is the 'main' attraction for Tonya Toran.

"Oh, this is a big deal to us because it's a place where the entire family can come," said Toran who moved to Greenville from Baltimore, Maryland.

A big deal that started 30 years ago, a time business owner Deb Ayers remembers all too well.

"It had become a rather ugly downtown. We were all trying to be contemporary," said Ayers recalling downtown having that '70s look.

For Greenville it came down to this; let downtown go forever or do something. City leaders chose the latter and this is the result of vision, a lot of money and a commitment that shows no sign of wavering.

"We took risks," said the city's Economic Development Director Nancy Whitworth.

Overlooking the city from atop of city hall, Whitworth says it was the so-called public-private partnership that got it going, a fuzzy beaucratic sounding phrase that simply encourages private investors to take a chance on downtown once public tax dollars are committed.

"The public sector is the spark plug, the private sector is really the engine," said Whitworth.

And it's been full steam ever since. Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants, downtown property taxes and some city money, paved the way for what it now a 3-mile stretch of beautiful trees, period lighting, specialty shops, restaurants and Greenville's new minor league baseball stadium. Montgomery hopes to look something like this down the road.

"We're thought of as downtown as everybody's neighborhood," said Whitworth.

Not necessarily. We ran into Rufus Salters.

"They need to explore a little movie theatre and maybe arena football," said Salters.

Not far from this interview with Salters we did find a couple of empty buildings, clearly indicating that even the best laid plans can lose focus.

"You can't always predict what the market will do. Some things will work, some things will not. You step back and regroup," Whitworth said.

In fact, for about 10 years nothing really moved in downtown Greenville, South Carolina, after the initial burst of activity yet there was no turning back.

"One thing we learned is having a lot of patience," said Whitworth.

And perseverance. Even when the sun goes down, people are still downtown, and not one person expressed any concerns about personal safety or crime.

An outdoor movie, 'War of the Worlds,' brought out Greenville native Brandy Caldwell by the Reedy River and hundreds more like her.

"I love this community because it's thriving culturally," said Caldwell, who recently moved to New York City to pursue an acting career.

The story of Greenville's renaissance is not a make-believe tale but a real-life movie of a town that's apparently stuck gold with a new downtown district, 30 years in the making.

Back in Montgomery city and economic development leaders say it will probably take a generation to fully revamped the downtown district. The main reason is downtown Montgomery is much more widespread than Greenville's downtown district.

In part 2 of WSFA 12 News reporter Bryan Henry's series, we'll look at not only what Montgomery has accomplished so far but why the renovation never got off the ground years ago.

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