Model for Montgomery: Revitalizing Downtown 3/3

Posted by Bryan Henry  -  bio | email

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - It's been said before that it 'takes a village' but in Greenville, South Carolina, it really did start with one man.

"No place for Jews," said Max Heller.

Max Heller left his native Austria more than 70 years ago to escape Hitler's hate and found the love in Greenville, South Carolina.

"They took me in," Heller remembers with a smile.

It is here in Greenville where Heller became mayor and discovered another war he had to overcome. This one certainly not as menacing as the Germans but quite a challenge nevertheless.

"We had grass growing out of concrete," he said.

Overcoming what many remember a rather ugly, stale-looking downtown. It had that '70s look and feel. Max Heller knew it could be better.

"I grew up in Vienna, Austria, and the cities in Europe are very important to us," Heller said.

The rest is history.

Main Street in Greenville is now an avenue of mature trees, fancy lighting and more specialty shops and restaurants you can count. More than good enough for Tonya Toran who recently moved to Greenville from Baltimore, Maryland.

"This gets my family out of the house," said Toran.

This is the kind of look downtown Montgomery is aiming for; quaint and pedestrian friendly but the people in Greenville will quickly tell you this didn't happen overnight.

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

The year was 1979. Max Heller first succeeded in landing the Hyatt Hotel and then came perhaps a more difficult challenge; selling the idea of a long range, complete overhaul to merchants like Deb Ayers.

"I just couldn't quite understand what he wanted to do. It was hard to grasp at first," said Ayers.

She does now.

30 years later, you'll find musicians sharing their tunes and developers like Russ Davis turning dirt.

"You gotta take the long view," said Davis.

Davis has just completed a $60 million deal worth of retail and apartments 3 blocks off Main Street, a decision solely based on what Greenville had done to its downtown. In economic terms, this is the so-called 'spill-over' affect.

"It'll take us a long time to make our money back but we're already getting a good return on the money," said Davis.

Some developments simply didn't work like a nearby hotel. It's not even half-built yet local officials say the construction stopped because of the national economic recession.

While Montgomery has a long way to go to catch up with Greenville's progress, there are clear signs the capital city has its own developers taking chances; loft apartments and the alleyway. WSFA 12 News has also learned that a private developer in Florida is investigating the possibility of building an aquarium off Bell Street near the Alabama River.

The road to total revitalization wasn't totally smooth for Greenville. Negotiations with property owners often took time and Montgomery is no exception.

Montgomery attorney Charles Edmondson represents the man who owns 12 commercial buildings on lower Dexter Avenue. The city says the appraised value is $2 million. Edmondson's client wants around $3 million.

"He would like nothing better than to see his section of lower Dexter developed," said Edmondson.

Today, downtown Greenville, South Carolina, just keeps blooming. The most recent development is the removal of an old concrete bridge that covered up a striking waterfall, spilling out of the Reedy River in town.

"People who've lived here all their lives never saw that part of the river because it was full of kudzu," said current Greenville Mayor Knox White.

And just 5 years ago, the city dedicated the Liberty Bridge. It's a pedestrian bridge rising 60 feet above the falls near the end of Main Street in Greenville.

All of this, however, does raise a question. How do you sustain the growth and the momentum without sacrificing Greenville's charm?

"Very carefully," Whitworth said.

Whitworth also added that they 'remember the fundamentals and execute.'

In the end it all goes back to Max Heller.

"It's wonderful," he said of how downtown has progressed.

A statue of Heller on Main Street is a testatment of what the locals think of him, a man who dared to change the face of downtown Greenville and ended up making quite a splash.

Back in Montgomery the city is carrying more than $80 million dollars in debt for its investments in downtown so far. The annual payment on that loan is $5 million a year. City leaders insist they have no problem making those yearly payments, and it's been 'well worth the investment.'

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