Dimon Kendrick-Holmes

Intercity trip lessons: Greenville has the engineers, Columbus has the ‘real river’

Greenville, S.C., experienced a rejuvenation after the city removed a four-lane highway bridge and uncovered a waterfall on the Reedy River.
Greenville, S.C., experienced a rejuvenation after the city removed a four-lane highway bridge and uncovered a waterfall on the Reedy River. Ledger-Enquirer

Comparing yourself to somebody successful can be inspiring or intimidating, or maybe a mixture of both.

The same applies when you compare your city to another city.

I bring this up because I just returned from the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual intercity trip.

The destination this year was Greenville, S.C., undoubtedly a successful city. I base this on the fact that every year about 15 cities visit Greenville to see what it’s doing right.

This was my first intercity visit, and for anybody who thinks it’s a junket, I can assure you it is not. If I’m going to choose a place to spend three full days of work I’m going to have to make up later, it’s going to be somewhere like Boston, which happens to be the destination of a past intercity trip.

It’s not going to be Greenville, which seemed like a pleasant place to live and work.

And that’s kind of the point. Nancy Whitworth, Greenville’s deputy city manager, said the city followed this advice when plotting improvements: “Do things the people who live here want, not what you think visitors will want.”

Greenville’s four-county metropolitan statistical area is about the same size as Columbus’ five-county MSA but has nearly three times the population.

Still, there are similarities. Both are transitioning from a textile past, both are skilled at public-private partnerships and, according to Carlos Phillips, the president and CEO of Greenville’s chamber of commerce, both are filled with people who are “a weird kind of nice.”

Oh, and both are centering revitalization efforts on bodies of water.

For Greenville, it’s the Reedy River. In the 1980s, with retail fleeing downtown, city leaders asked this question, according to current mayor Knox White: “What do we have that nobody else does?”

The answer was a waterfall in the middle of downtown that nobody realized was there because it was covered by a four-lane highway bridge.

Greenville paid $13 million to take down the bridge, then pumped more money into developing the site into a park and erecting a sleek modern pedestrian bridge. This sparked huge controversy that, according to White, “didn’t go away until the park opened.”

Since then, the city has dramatically increased its downtown residential offerings, which has led to the return of retail.

And get this: White says the city’s peak time for downtown tourists is now 3 p.m. on Sunday.

Greenville has more reasons for other cities to be jealous.

Once the self-proclaimed “Textile Capital of the World,” it’s home to Michelin’s North American headquarters and Lockheed Martin’s aircraft and logistics center, as well as a Honeywell facility, a General Electric gas turbine manufacturing operation, and Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research.

There’s an elementary school for engineering that’s zoned for a low-income neighborhood and has sent its Lego robotics team to Europe to compete in the world championship.

But for the more than 140 community and business leaders from Columbus who made the trip, hearing about the glories of Greenville was more inspiring than intimidating.

We’ve got something to build on, and Mayor White seems to agree.

“Sounds like Columbus has found its waterfall,” he says.

Actually, it’s way better. It’s the mighty Chattahoochee River, with the world’s longest urban whitewater course to boot. And White, a master showman who as a boy traveled to Columbus for a week every summer to help a friend deliver the Ledger, admits as much.

“Our river’s like a creek,” he says. “You’ve got a real river.”

Amen, brother.