What a Swamp Rabbit Knows About Main Street Revitalization

What a Swamp Rabbit Knows About Main Street Revitalization

October 8, 2013 at 6:59 am CDT

How do you amp up your main street revitalization projects? Many ideas are pitched as quick fixes: If you just do this , it will reverse decades of demographic and consumer shifts. Overnight! The truth is, it has rarely worked that way.

Greenville, S.C., (one our top affordable vacation cities) is a good example. The town of 60,000 realized early on that Main Street was an important commercial area. Like many main streets, it suffered in the 60s — feeling the impacts of sprawl and the growing suburban mall culture. A downtown revitalization effort began back in the 1970s and has continued to this day.

The path, according to the Greenville website, has been pretty traditional, but it’s working. In the 1970s, it was a very car-centric approach — both improving parking and creating more pleasant streets with decorative lights and signage.

In the 1980s, it moved into the next phase bringing in a hotel project and convention center. Nothing, um, unconventional about that. Next up was another standard play from the mayoral tool kit: a new performing arts center and sports arena.

But in the last decade, there’s been a shift in approach: making the downtown more friendly for people, not just cars. The West End district now features a park centered around the area’s waterfalls including a 345-foot pedestrian bridge over the falls themselves.

Up the road a bit in Travelers Rest, we see a new entry in the mayoral tool kit: a rails-to-trails project. The Swamp Rabbit Trail, sponsored by the Greenville Health System, is a 17.5-mile converted train line, which now winds its way along the Reedy river as a resource for bikers, hikers and joggers. It’s bringing people into the area in numbers that are sufficient to support a host of new businesses. According to GreenvilleOnline , more than 40 new businesses — especially restaurants, coffee houses and brew pubs — have opened since 2009. Even a shuttered restaurant, the American Café, is reopening after being dormant for four years.

Sure, we see rails-to-trails projects in big, dense cities like the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago, the High Line park in New York City and now the Beltline in Atlanta. But seeing them and seeing measurable, dramatic impact in a town of just a few thousand demonstrates that livability projects like this can work in communities of all sizes. Even more dramatically, the projects that focus on making the community work for people in all modes of transit, that encourage people to linger in a place rather than drive through it or park right outside its doors and run in — those are the projects that can make a difference in a sprint, not a just a marathon.

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Editor, What the Future; Editorial Strategy @ipsosUS, speaker, author @Buyographics. Past: @livability @adage @crainschicago.