An Un-Event-ful Year
By Marty Flynn
Marketing Program Academic Director, Greenville Technical College
The tapestry of events that thread a community calendar also weave a story of the changing faces, forces and funding that shape the places we live. In a year that has seen nearly all of our public events ‘coved’ (my personal descriptor), it is also a fitting opportunity to take stock of some of our many “people attractions” that reveal the cultural canvas of our local community.
Events are the clarions of a vibrant city. And it is very often events that drive the first spikes in the tracks of discovery that lead to downtown traffic. You have to get people downtown for one day before you can entice them to consider residency. And to go somewhere that we don’t usually go, we need a reason. So the run we want to run, the ethnic festival we want to imbibe, the band we want to hear, the artist and the art in the same setting, all lure us to the Main Street of the town that wants to be known for more than one day.
When it comes to the city of Greenville, our most enduring events represent the categories of fitness, entertainment, heritage and arts.
In the 1970s, running was a quest that appealed to the individual trapped in the competitive axes of time and distance, and mass participation as we know it today had not caught on. Contestants stepped on the line for the inaugural Reedy River 10k Run in 1978, and the scenic, undulating course that traversed the city by road, park and river quickly earned a reputation among serious runners as one of the premier foot races in the southeast. The 44th Reedy River Run, had it come to pass this year, would have seen thousands of participants representing all shapes and sizes converging in downtown Greenville for fitness, fun and fame. While the fast guys still lead the charge, what was once the ‘Darlington’ (too tough to tame) of road race courses, famous for its sixth mile of pure ascent, has lost some of its original grit and morphed into a very successful lifestyle event.
The 80s saw Greenville embrace the street festival with the launch of what would become the cash cow of city events, Fall for Greenville. From the outset, this street party had two things going for it: a downtown DNA prone to success, and an abundance of a precious natural element that every October produces on demand - irresistible weather. While our Main Street facade of 1982 had limited curb appeal, several iconic buildings were in the early stages of revival. I also believe that the vision of early city leaders to plant trees that they themselves would never dine under was the secret sauce of our downtown revitalization. If you want to sell your downtown, then you need a pedigree Main Street, for all down the ages from agricultural fairs to textile conventions to tourist attractions, people have always sought a center of congregation, and a bustling Main Street affirms they have arrived. Yes, every city and town has a Main Street, but Greenville has the Goldilocks of Main Streets: not too short, not too narrow, not crooked, nor bland, but a long, inviting, charming, ‘just right’ Main Street that accommodates vendors, shoppers, stallers, strollers, gawkers and entertainers.
The first ethnic food served on a Greenville festival platter was a Greek dish. It is fitting that the first immigrant group to set up a business network in this region, peppering the Upstate with restaurants, were also the first to extend their cultural presence beyond the dining room menu to Main Street fare. The Greek Festival, which turned 34 this year, is a local treasure representing some of the most colorful threads in the fabric of our international community. The Greeks did not come here as entrepreneurs, but as families supported by entrepreneurial endeavors. The successful production of their popular and profitable authentic festival experience is family-driven, family-focused and fueled by a family commitment to the preservation of their Greek heritage. Their ability to launch a scaled back but very successful drive-through version of their event in this year of cancellations is testimony to the self-reliance, infrastructure and resourcefulness of the local Greek community.
The Irish, on the other hand, who usually don the coat of scrappiness and perseverance in hard-wrought times, bowed out of the 25th year of the Return to the Green festival. Covid wielded its first and furious event death blows in the second half of March on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. The Covid carnage that immobilized the Irish extended to the brave Scots, whose planned parade down Main Street for the fifteenth consecutive year came to a screeching halt when the pipes of ill-fortune came calling.
Nonetheless these international-flavored events have an inherited resiliency that will serve them well in resuming their longstanding traditional celebrations in days ahead. It is interesting to note that while the city of Greenville wields significant clout in the local events arena well beyond the permitting process, our heritage undertakings, in true immigrant spirit, operate independently, self-funding, self-organizing and self-governing.
Greenville has always had a heart for the arts. Long before we donned our foodie brand bib, and before the downtown condo square foot became a premium and a privilege, it was art stores and antique stores that held the fort before retail reinforcements would arrive. And what a merry band of warriors our early arts community was, bringing us a gem of an event called RiverPlace Arts Festival, a marvel of its time, beloved by early downtown residents and recalled by few today. Riverplace evolved from an undertaking dating back to the 1950s that was initially created to introduce school children to the arts. In an era when an 11 x 17 poster was an essential advertising tool, the promotional face of Riverplace Arts Festival was one of the few worthy of a framed life.
I really don’t know if the advent of our highly acclaimed Artisphere was a case of usurpation, or that Riverplace had run its course, or just Greenville’s hankering for a bigger stage, but I do know that the sheer fiscal might and board prominence that decreed Artisphere into being guaranteed its success and dominance, whether it had competition or not.
The city of Greenville has evolved from its early role as host of annual events to that of desired destination for more events than there are days in a yearly calendar. Our notoriety as a must-see city, our celebrated climate, and most of all, our beautiful backdrop that elevates the status of any event that captures downtown billing, ensures a healthy outdoor entertainment market. Events in the city also benefit from a significant and growing base of standby customers located within earshot, short walk or birds-eye view of every outdoor activity, thanks to our large downtown residential community
The poison spurs of 2020 will in time fade from headline to footnote, for as sure as the swallows return to Capistrano every March, the people will flock to the streets of Greenville in a new spring.
And from footnote to up-note, consider all the money we saved in a year of not having been accosted by those parking profiteers brandishing their unwelcoming orange flags and reminding us of the price of our growth.