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Greenville Business Magazine

25th Anniversary: Knox White reflects on the transformation of downtown

Oct 04, 2018 03:54PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By John McCurry
Photos By Greenville Headshots

Knox White, Greenville’s mayor for the past 23 years and a city councilman for a decade prior to that, believes the great change in the city has been the seismic shift in the image its citizens have of their town.

“In 25 years, we’ve gone from a lot of talk to having a community where people want to come back to after they go to college,” White says. “It’s all because of a group that dared to ask the question, ‘Can Greenville be cool?’”

He notes that planning has always been a Greenville strong point.

“Greenville has always been good in terms of collaboration and partnerships.,” White says. “We’ve had those things going for us from a cultural standpoint, going back many decades.”

But maybe the biggest surprise is that Greenville has become a big draw for tourists from around the South. Historically considered a business or a textile-manufacturing town, was becoming a tourism Mecca realistic?

“Attracting tourists seemed like a possibility,” White says. “We were a business town and we had people in town for business, and we had always seen ourselves as a city of commerce.”

Indeed they have come, booking up hotels on the weekends. Visitors from Atlanta and Charlotte arrive in huge numbers.

“Hotels are booming and we’re getting new hotels all over the place,” White observes.

Because of its business heritage, Greenville has always been a welcoming community to people outside of the area.

White notes that the Upstate’s textile heritage comes into play here. Much of the leadership that created the region’s textile industry moved south from New England. As the industry grew and matured, it attracted more executives from around the U.S. Later, as much of the textile machinery business moved out of the U.S., many European and Asian machinery suppliers located around Greenville, bringing an international flavor.

But in the late 1960s, realizing the risk of relying on one major industry, Greenville Chamber leadership launched an effort to diversify from textiles.

“At the time, there wasn’t an objective reason to do that,” White recalls. “Other communities in nearby states stuck with textiles, but Greenville made a very intentional decision and one of the early successes was the attraction of GE in 1967 and that continues to pay great dividends today. They brought in engineers. Soon after that came Michelin, and they helped bring in an international sector. Now, we have their North America headquarters.”

White notes that the arrival of BMW in 1992 came as the textile industry was beginning its long, slow decline, further validating the decision to diversify.

Greenville’s success has garnered national attention in recent years. Groups from cities from all over the country regularly come to Greenville to see how the city reinvented itself. This happens about 15 to 20 times a year. Sometimes the groups are small, other times they are large, like the group of about 50 who White met with from a city in North Carolina in August.

During the period of industry diversification, the city also began the journey to reinvent downtown. That’s a product of several decades aimed at making downtown a people-focused, walkable environment, White says.

“When I came in as mayor, it was time to go in a different direction and focus on mixed-use development and be laser-focused on bringing residential development to downtown. The city played a big role, taking city-owned property in the 1990s and put them up for sale for mixed. Against all odds, we were successful. Creating a critical mass of residential has been a huge page of the downtown story.”

Today, Greenville streets are bustling after 5 p.m. and on weekends. Retail has returned. White says that began to happen in earnest when the city recruited Mast General Store in the mid 1990s.

Another milestone was the removal of the Camperdown Bridge in 2003 and the construction of Falls Park. That changed the city’s trajectory, according to White, who sees that area as the town’s centerpiece. 

“As I reflect upon it, the power of Greenville’s downtown is elemental — trees and water,” White says.

Downtown has also become a big recruiting tool for businesses. White says there is no debate about the positive impact it has had on attracting young, talented people and businesses to the region.

“When hospitals recruit a surgeon, downtown plays a big role,” the mayor says. “No one anticipated this, but there has been a ripple effect.”

The biggest challenge in the transformation? White says it was making believers of everyone in the beginning. A lot of people didn’t believe in a residential downtown. Removing the bridge was controversial, as was moving the baseball stadium downtown. Naysayers were out in force then, but the prevailing attitude has changed over time.

“We are so beyond that now,” White says. “We are building a new 60-acre park, Unity Park, along the river. There are a lot of challenges, but there’s no controversy. Now, we are dealing more with the issues of growth such as affordable housing. That’s something all successful cities are dealing with, managing the growth. We take these issues seriously. We’re creating more green space and parks, expanding bike and walking trails, and saying no to some developments we think are inappropriate.”

So, how does the mayor think the next quarter century will unfold?

“We will still be as careful as we can be about development. The footprint of downtown Greenville has enlarged immensely and that will continue,” he says. “We will continue to focus on walkability and keeping the green in Greenville and those things that give it so much character.”

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