South Carolina undertakes revitalization of its downtowns
Mix small-town charm with big-city accessibility and you’ve got Sonya Crandall’s dream come true.
Crandall is the executive director of Envision Williamston, a program housed under the Main Street South Carolina initiative, which works to empower local communities with the knowledge, skills, resources and organizational structure necessary to revitalize their downtown districts.
“Main Street SC is perfect for small towns on the brink of becoming a destination for people looking for a higher quality of life, but who still wish to have access to big cities and their offerings,” Crandall said.
That’s exactly what she believes Williamston has to offer.
A small town of about 4,000 residents, Williamston sits in the northwest part of South Carolina, a short commute from larger cities like Greenville and Anderson. Crandall said, as Envision Williamston’s executive director, her hope is to draw visitors from those larger cities, but it all starts with simple solutions right in town.
“We want people to come and enjoy our historic parks, our regional events, a place to have good, clean family fun. But we want to move on from that — instead of just coming to visit, come stay a while. Dine here, enjoy our shops, stay the night,” she said. As part of their master plan, Crandall said Envision Williamston will eventually offer more retail and residential options, as well as bed and breakfasts, bicycle paths and social gathering spaces in town. Each of these additions will not only make the downtown corridor more appealing, but will spark economic growth and job availability within the community over time.
Main Street SC Manager Beppie LeGrand said small changes rooted in economically sound decisions are what ultimately contribute to a successful community revitalization effort.
“The change has to be comprehensive,” she said. “We’re keen on making sure we don’t just give communities pretty buildings — they need the hardcore piece of economic development in place. We offer tools, resources and staff to help with all of that.”
Main Street SC is a branch of the larger National Main Street program. The intensive program largely focuses on working with community leaders to discover cost-effective methods to attract new investments to downtown districts while reusing already existing amenities and infrastructure. Following the national “Four Point Approach” model, LeGrand works with each of Main Street SC’s 17 enrolled communities to ensure the principles of organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring are at the forefront of each master plan. In order to enroll in the program, communities must complete an exhaustive application and be chosen to participate. After that, community leaders must hire a person to oversee the project and commit to a three-year boot camp program. During boot camp, community leaders are provided intensive technical assistance and training.
“Communities really have to commit to being on board for three years,” LeGrand said. “You can’t start turning the corner in less time than that. A lot of training must happen, a lot of resources need to be under your belt before you can make a real change happen.”
The city of Hartsville is one of LeGrand’s favorite stories of a well-executed plan and successful results.
A total of 51 ribbon cuttings have taken place in Hartsville since the city joined the Main Street SC program in 2014, including the addition of boutiques, restaurants and two hotels.
“Our city really sees the value in the Main Street SC program,” Main Street Hartsville Executive Director Suzy Moyd said. “It has breathed new life into our downtown district.”
Much of the city’s success can be attributed to thinking outside of the box. During the boot camp phase, community leaders created StartUp Hartsville — a Shark Tank-type competition — complete with funding and other incentives to encourage local entrepreneurs to establish their businesses downtown.
Contestants received assistance developing and executing business plans, securing funding and creating a marketing strategy.
“We’re building a community of entrepreneurs,” Moyd said. “They all try to out-think each other, one-up each other. That energy is something that people want to come see and explore.”
As a result of StartUp Hartsville, four new businesses have been established downtown, and two more will be added within the year.
“The synergy in Hartsville is great,” LeGrand said. “They’ve got a young, progressive mayor and city manager, lots of community support and support from the local college. It’s an ideal situation.”
However, it’s not always so easy, LeGrand cautioned.
Main Street SC’s oldest program is in the city of Beaufort. Enrolled since the beginning of Main Street SC 32 years ago, the city has experienced great success, but also huge setbacks, especially when floods devastated the community in 2015 and rained out the largest fundraiser of the year.
“Beaufort has seen a lot of ups and downs,” LeGrand said. “But like a phoenix, they rose up again, forming a partnership with the local chamber of commerce and sticking to the program.”
That, LeGrand said, is why the three-year boot camp period is so vital to a community’s success. Laying the groundwork is key, and having a solid foundation on which to rebuild a community is a must.
In the coming years, LeGrand doesn’t anticipate taking on more than one or two more programs annually so as not to spread her resources too thin. Instead, she said, she hopes to continue helping her enrolled communities flourish.
“Once a city is in our program, they’re with us forever,” she said. “They may leave the program and come back later, but when they need us, we’re here. When that change needs to happen, we can show them how.”
For more information, or if interested in becoming a Main Street SC community, contact Beppie LeGrand, Main Street SC manager, at email@example.com or (803) 933-1231. To learn more about the National Main Street Center, visit its website at www.mainstreet.org.
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