Spartanburg, South Carolina, thrives on collaboration
Nowadays, Spartanburg, S.C., is a growing, bustling city with a lively downtown area and an emphasis on all involved working together.
However, according to Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce CEO/President Allen Smith, things were not always so good. In fact, just a few years ago, visitors would have seen a very different city.
“We have really, in short order, gone from a very, very quiet downtown to a downtown now, per pedestrian counters we installed, that experiences 241,000 pedestrian counts every month,” Smith said.
Getting there was not easy. It required careful study into numerous aspects of Spartanburg, and the findings were not pretty.
“If you’d have asked me five years ago, I’d have shared the stats and you would have said, ‘You’re crazy, there’s no way that’s going to happen between 2014 and 2019,’ but it did,” Smith said of the tremendous economic growth the city has seen. “One in four (downtown) businesses right now were not there 36 months ago.”
One of the first things to do was to find out what people’s perception of Spartanburg was. The feedback was not flattering.
“One thing we realized very early on was people, five years ago … had no perception or a negative perception,” Smith said.
Changing this perception would be easier said than done, but Spartanburg was up for the challenge.
A major contributor to this growth has been OneSpartanburg, a five-year initiative now in its third year.
OneSpartanburg recently released its year-three report, focusing on the areas of talent, economy, image and place. In each of these areas, different groups and organizations in Spartanburg have worked cooperatively to build a more attractive community, not just to live in, but to work and own a business in. A major component to that has been attracting white-collar jobs to the downtown area.
“We think downtown is the obvious place for a lot of those jobs,” Smith said. “People want to walk to a job, people want to be close to amenities.”
In addition, Spartanburg hopes to add up to 1,000 multifamily units downtown, 500 of which are already a reality.
“When you get 1,000 multifamily units, that’s 1,500 (to) 2,000 people living downtown. That’s a small town unto itself,” Smith said. “When you hit that threshold, a world of economic opportunities can open up to you. Retailers and restaurants that wouldn’t even look at your community suddenly are interested.”
Early on, those who most wanted to see Spartanburg prosper realized that the key would be collaboration. As a result, one aspect of the city rarely functions without others working closely with it.
“We’re collaborative,” Smith said. “So, we have the only model really in North and South Carolina. I oversee tourism development for the entire county and economic development for OneSpartanburg, all under one roof.”
As another example, the Chapman Cultural Center houses eight arts-based nonprofit organizations.
Even with its focus on bringing in white-collar jobs, Spartanburg has not forgotten its blue-collar history. Through all of the growth and changes, Spartanburg has managed to maintain part of its identity as a manufacturing town. For example, the BMW plant located there manufactures 1,400 cars a day.
“We still have that culture, that mill town kind of personality, where we’re authentic,” Smith said. “It’s blue collar, it’s genuine, there’s not a lot of flash, there’s not a lot of sizzle.”
Creating equal opportunities for minority groups is another priority for Spartanburg. Because of this, two summers ago Spartanburg funded the Racial Equality Index to take a long, candid look at where inequities in the community lay.
Once again, the findings were not flattering.
According to Smith, the study showed the white population was earning double what the African-American population was earning. Members of the Hispanic population were three times as likely to live in poverty and the black population, twice as likely.
“In the Deep South, in South Carolina, we funded a racial equality index that every community kind of knows what their community stats are, but if you were pressed to ask community leaders, what’s white per capita income versus black, or Hispanic versus white, the REI breaks that down,” Smith said.
Health, infant mortality, life expectancy and other factors were also taken into account for each group.
“The things we kind of knew, but we’d never seen it through a data lens,” Smith said. “We were up front about things that were less than flattering.”
As a result, Spartanburg has begun moving in a direction that will hopefully provide more and better opportunities for minority residents.
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