The Changing Face of Downtowns: South Carolina Helps Put Up a Good Front
By Laura Hendrix Corbin
When the South Carolina Department of Commerce’s Community and Rural Development Division began offering a competitive grant program for downtown revitalization through the Rural Infrastructure Fund in 2004, Lee County was among the first to ask, “What can we do to change our face?”
From that simple question came a lot of assistance by the Community and Rural Development Division (CRD), the most important of which was strategic planning that looked at four very important issues: recreation, quality of life, education and economic development.
“Economic development already was a major focus in the town of Bishopville’s need to revitalize its historic downtown,” says Jeff Burgess, executive director of the Lee County Economic Development Alliance. “We were already working in this area, so that’s where our initial goal was set.”
The rural towns of Bishopville and Bennettsville, along with the city of Union, became the three top-scoring recipients of that first Opportunity Grant Program funds focused on revitalizing downtowns through streetscaping, building renovations, tourism enhancement, work force development and small business development. They were among 22 eligible communities across the state to submit applications for the program.
In Bishopville, the town coupled the first Opportunity Grant funds of $1.3 million with federal ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Act – pronounced “ice tea”) funds to completely streetscape – including sidewalks, curbs and gutter, and flora – both sides of Main Street along with a major intersecting thoroughfare, Council Street.
“We had 17 partners, including the Lee County Public Library, Central Carolina Technical College, the city of Bishopville, Lee County and the Economic Development Alliance and a host of others,” Burgess says. “That group put together a total of about $5 million to enhance our downtown.”
The city and county partnered to purchase and renovate a two-story historic building that now houses a satellite of Central Carolina Technical College on the top floor and the library downstairs – nearly tripling the size of the library from 3,000 square feet. “It’s a terrific, up-to-date library that just opened about a year ago, and the technical college site serves about 130 students, nearly 30 percent of whom are first-generation college students.”
In addition, two other buildings were revitalized and now house the Lee County Chamber of Commerce and its Visitors Center.
“One nice thing about these grants and what the Community and Rural Development Division did was to take our 10-year plan and knocked it to five years,” Burgess says. “The beauty is that they didn’t come in and tell us how it was going to be done; they didn’t have a cookie cutter. They let the community choose its own direction, and they set up the process and work with the towns on the timeline and trying to stay realistic in their plans. They let the communities work through the process, playing to their own strengths and opportunities while addressing their weaknesses.”
In Bennettsville, the first $2 million Opportunity Grants allowed the town to rehabilitate the facades of 60 buildings, provide a class to teach the restoration of old brick and windows, a marketing campaign, public restrooms and a wayfinding campaign, according to Ken Harmon, director of downtown development for the town.
Both communities received $950,000 each in Phase II funds to continue their progress.
“The end result has been a beautifully restored downtown with new streets, sidewalks and gutters, new building facades, the signage in place and the welcome columns into the city, which will be completed soon, along with a flag monument just finished,” he says. “None of this could have been accomplished without the Opportunity Grants; they were vital to our projects, and what the Community and Rural Development Division did was vital to our success.”
“Downtowns are the face and often times the first impression of a community’s quality of life and business climate,” says Maceo Nance, director of CRD. “It is important that a community strive for a thriving downtown business district and economy. Bennettsville and Bishopville are each moving to ‘revive’ their downtowns. Direct financial assistance from Commerce, through the Opportunity Grants/Rural Infrastructure Fund, in conjunction with local funding has provided the capital to make this effort take root.”
The division also offers a variety of other programs and services that many South Carolina communities have embraced, including:
• Product development of industrial parks, speculative buildings and certified sites
• Site selection and inventory management
• Industrial park development
• Speculative building development
• Education of local leaders and professionals
• Certification of local community development corporations
“Community and economic development are important to increase a community’s competitiveness and quality of life,” Nance adds. “The more communities that are ready for development, the greater chance of winning an industry location, a small business opening or new people moving into your community. Greater tax base, job creation and the creation of a better living environment are all benefits of these efforts.”