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Greenville Business Magazine

25th Anniversary: Business is back downtown

Oct 04, 2018 03:55PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By John Jeter
Photo by Amy Randall Photography

Greenville’s Main Street ain’t your daddy’s downtown, but it was a generation ago when city fathers reimagined it. Some of their now-grown children who helped develop the central business district today see a place that is at once a national envy and unrecognizable.

“In the ’90s, it felt like you were in the Wild West and everything was fun and energetic and adventurous, and by the time we got into the 2000s, property values went up enough to where it became some serious investment property and that changed the landscape,” says Jay Spivey, publisher of the online magazine Fête and onetime owner of Henni’s, a popular bar in the heart of downtown.

Located just off Piazza Bergamo, once a dull brick-paved commons and now the glitzy One City Plaza at Main and Coffee streets, Henni’s was one of the first of only four places downtown to stay open after 9 p.m., Spivey recalls.

“Back then, you could stand in the middle of Main Street on a Wednesday night and not see a car move,” he says. He remembers the first Downtown Alive in 1986, when about 20 people showed up in front of Dempsey’s, another favorite Main Street watering hole.

Today, downtown’s alive with nearly 130 retailers and about the same number of restaurants, according to the city, which defines the central business district as 1.7 square miles from Stone Avenue to Fluor Field and from Bon Secours Wellness Arena to the Kroc Center.

Downtown’s continually rejuvenating heart pumps ever-increasing cash flows. In 2010, retailers and restaurants racked up $982 million in sales, city figures show, while 2017 saw $2.1 billion.

Jim Simkins, whose father served on City Council from 1971 through his one-year mayoralty in 1979, remembers when James Simpkins, Max Heller, and other well-known visionaries saw the need to spiff up the old mill town’s center.

“He really was a firm believer in what downtown could become with the right mix of people and ideas,” says Simkins, who owns a handful of properties, including yet another stalwart, Ayers Leather Shop, now at its third home at 24 W. North St.

Many others weren’t so convinced.

Several years before Greenville Business Magazine opened at the century-old Mills Mill on downtown’s outskirts, Simkins remembers when the sidewalks were widened and Main Street was narrowed to two lanes.

A 21-year-old Furman University student at the time, Simkins wandered into a men’s store where the proprietor grabbed him by his collar. “He said, ‘I’m going to personally go out and campaign against your father if he runs for office again. I’m going to do everything I can to see that he’s defeated because he and those other communists are destroying downtown.’”

Recounting what’s now common lore, he says Greenville was the nation’s smallest city to lure a flagship Regency from Hyatt, thanks to an old-Greenville power broker’s personal appeal to the Pritzker family, the chain’s Chicago owner.

Families are what built downtown, say old-timers and even some newcomers who hope the vibe survives.

Deb Ayers Agnew, whose father started the leather shop in 1950 in the then-and-again chic Poinsett Hotel, remembers when McAlister Square opened in 1968 and Haywood Mall in 1980. Outlying retailers marked the beginning of the end of a downtown whose prime had passed after the Eisenhower years, she says.

After retailers’ flight gutted Main Street, she recalls a trip to one of the malls.

“To this day, I remember the car door shutting and complete silence, and Daddy turned around to look at Mother and myself and said, ‘This will be the salvation of downtown.’”

Brian Reed, research manager at CBRE, whose office is perched only a few doors down from where Spivey paid roughly $10 a square foot, says top-market square-footage rates have risen from around $17.50 in 1991 to the $30 range today.

Some of those increases are due to the proliferation of Class A office space and high-end residential units.

A 1991 real estate summary shows the three-floor, 19,520-square-foot “Piazzo Bergamo Building” leasing for $13.50 per square foot — with 26 percent occupancy. Today, 103 N. Main St. leases for nearly double that. 

“A lot of it comes down to the aesthetic of having that high-quality environment,” Reed says.

Although most people love Greenville’s newfound fanciness, there are those who bemoan the loss of funky/dive-y downtown bars and mom-and-pop shops, replaced more and more with restaurants that charge $40-plus for a New York strip and boutiques selling triple-digit dresses.

“That’s just economics at work,” Spivey says. “The better downtown does, the more it’s going to take a chain or a developer coming in to do something. It’s just not affordable anymore for John Doe, who’s lived here all his life to just come in and open a restaurant.”

Ashley Clark and her husband, Landon, opened Kilwins Chocolate Fudge and Ice Cream five years ago, a franchise of a candies-and-gifts store that opened as a mom-and-pop in 1947 in Michigan.

Today, Clark, who was named U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2018 South Carolina Young Entrepreneur of the Year, says of downtown’s evolution: “It’s interesting to see what businesses make it and what don’t and to see the balance and to see how our town responds to the balance of national retail versus mom-and-pop shops. I think you need some of everything.”

Looking around her store tucked into the Hyatt plaza, downtown’s first redevelopment sweet spot, she says of Kilwins, “I think we’re the best of both worlds; we’re a national brand, but we work really hard to be a part of the community.”

Like the others, Clark credits the collegial partnership between city and Chamber of Commerce leaders, business owners, and developers with downtown’s award-winning allure.

“The longevity of downtown is in great hands,” she says, “and it’s only going to get better.”