You’ve heard it before. Pretty much everybody’s heard it before.
“If only Augusta could be more like Greenville.”
It’s easy to envy Greenville, S.C., and it makes sense to do it. By all accounts, downtown Greenville is a pretty awesome place. It has restaurants and shopping and businesses, and more than that it has people — lots and lots of people — living right there in the downtown.
But is it a fair comparison?
“Absolutely,” says Rob Johnson, a human resources consultant and trainer who has lived in both Greenville and Augusta. “If you went back 15 years, you would probably have had people going ‘Downtown Greenville will never be anything.’”
In other words, 15 years ago downtown Greenville might as well have been Augusta.
Currently living in Greenville, this is Johnson’s second time there, so he has seen the changes. When he was first there, from 2000-2005, he says it was pretty rundown. Then he moved back to Augusta for five years before returning to Greenville around 2010.
From his perceptive, downtown Augusta has the potential to be every bit as engaging as downtown Greenville if it could just find a center point.
“That’s what I’ve always felt it missed,” he says. “Downtown Greenville is the epicenter for everything, and that’s what I’d love to see in downtown Augusta. I’d love for it to be that magnet that draws people in from all the surrounding areas.”
However, he says, differences among politicians seem to keep that kind of growth from happening.
“My experience has been that on Augusta’s commission there seems to be so much infighting,” he says. “Every time there is a development proposed, it’s not so much what will this do, it’s what is my group missing by not having this development.”
Former Administrator Randy Oliver, who left Augusta in October of 2000 to become the city manager of Greenville, agrees that the differences built into consolidated Richmond County make such progress difficult.
“The two communities are quite different,” he says. “Greenville is much more compact that Augusta is. Augusta is both city and county, so you’ve got both suburban and urban areas, where Greenville is just a city and has much greater density overall, and greater density makes quite a bit of difference.”
Greenville Mayor Knox White has guided Greenville’s growth for the last 18 years, and as he shows off the downtown he helped create it’s obvious what he thinks the secret is.
“Everything we do is mixed use,” he says. “That’s your alpha and omega here.”
By mixed use he means combining uses so that each building in the downtown area contributes to as many aspects of downtown living as possible — commercial, residential, office space, public space.
He looks at the Marriott hotel that sits next to the 10-story city hall. Until a few years ago it was a parking garage. Now, it’s a major hotel with a unique outdoor amenity.
“Part of the deal for buying this incredible piece of real estate was that you had to do a greenspace that was convertible to an ice rink in the winter,” White says. “And there’s a restaurant under awnings, so you’re eating at a restaurant and watching people ice skate. And we don’t have a tent on top of it, even though it might be 70 degrees in December. We’ve got a big chiller.”
The fact that outdoor dining has become one of the hallmarks of downtown Greenville is no accident.
“If you’re opening a restaurant on Main Street and you’re not having outside dining, we’re going to ask you why you’re not,” he says.
When White took office in December of 1995, “downtown” was pretty much considered the block of Main Street by the Hyatt Hotel, which continues to be one of the main focal points for civic activity. There was also a performing arts center down on the river, but the river at that time was a long way from being developed and people would go, attend an event and then leave.
“Otherwise, for about 20 years, during the ’80s and into the ’90s, when you said downtown Greenville you were strictly talking about a one block area around the Hyatt Hotel,” White says. “Other than that, it was kind of a Berlin Wall. Everything else was abandoned or empty.”
Like Augusta, Greenville’s downtown area was wiped out by the advent of the shopping mall, becoming a “one-department-store-left kind of thing.” But in the mid 1970s, the Hyatt project provided an anchor that kept the downtown area from drifting away entirely.
In the late ’70s the city planted trees along Main Street and narrowed the road to two lanes, which White says was visionary.
“But keep in mind there was no one here to complain,” he says. “There was a lag time of about 20 years.”
Then came the Westin Poinsett Hotel project, which inched the progress closer to the river. The Poinsett Hotel was built in 1925 and had been vacant for about 20 years. There was a lot of emotional attachment to it in the community, however, and its spectacular renovation was a very public success, one that White says allowed them to build a little credibility with the local voters.
From there, the growth moved down to the river, specifically Falls Park, which Trip Advisor recently rated No. 10 in the Top 25 parks in the nation.
Before they could build the park, the city had to decide what it was that made it unique. In the early planning documents they called it personality. What did they have that made Greenville different? Authentic? A place that people wanted to return to?
Most people wanted to create personality from scratch. An aquarium was thrown out as an idea, as was a big ferris wheel. Only a small group was talking about the river.
“As obvious as it is now, it wasn’t obvious then,” White says. “Most people didn’t even know we had a river, but from that discussion, the small group of people who were always talking about the river got a little bigger, and I made it my big thing when I got reelected to attack the river. But it was really hard politically.”
The first job was to tear down the big four-lane bridge that crossed directly over the waterfalls. Since few even knew the falls were there, the idea of tearing down the bridge was unpopular. Without it, many people felt the downtown would suffer.
Limit the cars, limit the people.
“That was the big, seminal, blood-in-the-streets controversy,” he says. “Everyone thought we were crazy. Even when we got the votes to tear down the bridge, I’d say maybe 30 percent of the people thought it was a good idea. Everybody else was against it.”
Ten years ago this fall the park opened and, about two years after that, hotels and condominiums and retail exploded around it.
Funded purely by a food and beverage tax, the park cost $13 million. Within a year and a half, White says $150 million in private investment poured into the immediate area, which had been totally blighted.
Later, a downtown baseball stadium moved the growth even further down Main Street, thanks to the city’s dedication to mixed use development.
Early on, however, Greenville had an anything goes philosophy when it came to development. White gradually shifted that balance with two events — by working to deny a bar from purchasing a vacant city-owned building and turning down Greenville Technical College’s plan to lease the vacant Poinsett Hotel. In a downtown starving for businesses and traffic, turning down two such reasonable uses for vacant properties seemed to fly in the face of their desperation, but White stood firm and ultimately the moves turned out to be successful.
Two years after denying the bar, White sold the building to Mast General Store, giving the downtown a destination store that has become a fixture for locals and tourists alike. And after more time sitting vacant, the city finally found a developer of historic hotels to take on the classic Poinsett Hotel, which became the Westin Poinsett.
Holding firm paid dividends with the downtown baseball field, too. After 10 years of being turned down by teams that didn’t want to participate in a mixed-use stadium, the city finally found a group out of New York willing to give it a try.
“He got a local developer and said, ‘I’ll build the stadium, you do the apartments and condos and all that,’” White says. “So it was a seamless project, and we were helpful in the streetscape and all that.”
Frequently, the city will use streetscapes or a parking garage to entice businesses. Parking is free on the street and relatively inexpensive in the city-owned garages, which are located just off Main Street, strategically placed around the city’s main properties.
“We’ve had consultants tell us that we do need [meters] to encourage people to use the garages, and that’s all very rational and very true,” he says. “But we think of it as more of a public face kind of thing.”
By focusing on mixed use, they were able to convince people to live downtown and stay downtown, and now the retail is joining the already flourishing restaurant culture, which was one of the first things to take root.
“We’ve got the residential and some blockbuster projects like the river,” he says. “The last to come is retail, but this year we’ve got Brooks Brothers and Anthropologie, so this is the year that we sort of say we’ve nailed it — we’ve got them all: office, retail, residential. Now it’s on automatic pilot so we can probably no longer worry about recruiting, just like we don’t recruit apartments anymore.”
Though local retailers historically fear the encroachment of national stores, Deb Ayers Agnew, whose family-owned store, Ayers Leather Shop, has been in the same downtown location for 63 years, says the influx of new retailers is welcome.
“Competition is your best friend because you find your niche,” she says. “If somebody’s doing it better than you — let ‘em. But what you find is people don’t buy all their clothes from one place and you don’t buy a gift for everybody in your family from the same place every year.”
In the 1960s, when businesses fled downtown for the malls in the suburbs, Agnew’s parents kept the downtown store while opening additional stores in the malls. That only lasted for a short time, however.
“When the malls called us and said all the little mom and pop businesses had to leave, my dad got in the car and said, ‘This will be the salvation of downtown,’ and it was.”
So, given all the similarities between the two cities — the abandoned downtown, the river, the restaurant craze, the fear among local businesses of outside development — is it really fair to compare the two?
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver has heard all the comparisons, and though he says he wants Augusta to be the best Augusta it can be without emulating any other city, he does say he admires the way Greenville has managed to bring residents to the city center. He says the 98 percent occupancy rate for downtown loft space in Augusta shows how much demand there is for downtown residential opportunities in the Garden City. Then he throws out a statistic.
“For metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) of our size nationally, an MSA of 560,000 people, the average number of residents in the urban core would be 300,000,” he says. “We’ve got about 80,000 residents.”
In other words, Augusta is ready for big residential projects, which is something identified by Chuck Branch of Retail Strategies, the consulting group that is providing the Downtown Development Authority with a retail study.
In June he raised eyebrows by saying Augusta needed to think beyond renovation when it came to residential property.
“I think it’s great that you’ve got people willing to come in and redo a new building and add five or six or 10 new units, but I think [it’s important] to identify developers that want to come in and do 70 to 100 units per development,” he said. “Or at some point find a developer that wants to come in and do 200-250 for-rent residential units.”
Augusta hasn’t always proven itself to be open to working with outside investors, however.
“I had a group of developers in from Greenville about a month ago that said Augusta’s potential is even better than Greenville’s,” Copenhaver says. “This is coming from somebody from Greenville. But we haven’t always been the easiest place to invest.”
An example of that is Augusta’s downtown ballpark, he says. Jim Jacoby, the developer of Atlanta’s Atlantic Station, was a partner in a group looking to do a riverfront stadium, but he didn’t get much of an opportunity to invest in Augusta.
What are some of the roadblocks to the kind of progress that would bring Augusta closer to Greenville?
“I would say we need to develop a progressive mindset at the elected level,” Copenhaver says. “I know that has helped in Greenville.”
White agrees, lavishing praise on his city council.
“We have a long tradition of well-educated city council members who leave with their reputations in tact,” he says. “That’s been going on for a long time.”
Of the six commissioners, one is an internet entrepreneur, one is an employment recruiter, one is a CEO, one is a director of community and government affairs, one is a mother of two and one is an owner/principal of an engineering firm. All have received at least bachelors degrees.
And while White says many view him as being a strong mayor wielding a lot of power, he says that is mainly perception.
“I’m a weak mayor,” he says. “We have a city manager form of government. Now, there is a wonderful tradition in Greenville of the mayor being very high profile and being perceived as being strong, but legally it’s a city manager form of government.”
That said, Oliver, who was city manager from 2000-2003, says White has been a dynamic force in the growth of Greenville.
“He’s got vision and he’s driven toward that vision, and he’s done a good job in achieving it,” he says.
One thing Greenville doesn’t have to deal with is the sprawl of greater Richmond County. Because the state of South Carolina makes annexation difficult, Greenville couldn’t grow its way out of a problem the way some cities have, which has kept the city dense and kept the city council unified on the same problems.
“Politically, when you elect a mayor and when you elect at-large city council members, they are city people,” White says. “They don’t live far from downtown, so we don’t have that fragmentation.”
Copenhaver is also envious of the amount of private investment in Greenville’s downtown, something that hasn’t followed Augusta’s public projects.
“In Augusta, when you think about it from the public side, in the past 10 years, between the convention center, the Judicial Center, the new law enforcement center, the new library, the new dental school and St. Sebastian Way, the public sector has invested more than a billion dollars in the urban core, but to the best of my recollection, the last major private building project the downtown has seen was the Country Inn and Suites.”
That’s a stark difference. In hotels alone, downtown Greenville currently has a Holiday Inn, a Hyatt, a Westin, a Marriott Courtyard and a Hampton Inn. Under construction this year is a Hilton product, an Embassy Suites and a Loft Hotel and there are four more in the works.
Even given Augusta’s poor track record for kick starting private sector investment, Copenhaver is optimistic about Augusta’s future. He remains excited about GRU’s stated commitment to focus all growth in the urban core and he says the addition of the Army’s cyber command headquarters at Fort Gordon will be bringing in many new people who come from areas with a strong city center, like Washington, D.C.
Downtown safety is also a big asset in Greenville’s favor. While Augusta is widely perceived as being unsafe, Greenville is just the opposite, using a visible police presence and a curfew for those under 18 to give the downtown a relaxed feeling.
Johnson says that going downtown for an event is fun, but very controlled; when the event is over, it’s over.
“It’s kind of like, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stand here,” he says. “In fact, some coworkers and I were out last week and we were literally standing on the corner trying to figure out where we were going to go and an officer came up to us. We’re like, ‘We’re trying to figure out where we’re going,’ and the guy was like, ‘Well, figure it out.’ It was get into a store or a restaurant, and it would be great if Augusta could push that way because you’re pushing money into restaurants and you’re pushing money into those art studios and that sort of thing.”
Downtown Greenville uses tax increment financing to keep downtown tax money going toward downtown improvements, but it doesn’t have a downtown development authority the way Augusta does.
“That’s not a bad way to do things, it’s just we don’t have that,” White says. “The city staff is so integrated about downtown that there’s a seamlessness with the staff. It’s very much of a team approach. Everybody understands their role.”
Perhaps the most fitting advice to Augusta comes in the form of the general, underlying philosophy of keeping the downtown the center of the community.
“Before I was mayor, this community did a good job with putting the arts center downtown,” White says. “The arena being downtown went against popular wisdom and later, with me, there was the baseball stadium. But having key community places to at least get people in the habit of coming downtown is important. Churches and libraries and all those things — it really matters that they’re still downtown.”