After running on a dare, Roberts sees his plan for city coming to fruition
Ten years ago, someone dared Anderson native Terence Roberts to run for city mayor. Today, the self-described “coach’s son” raised by two teachers says the city is on the cusp of big changes, with plans to leverage the city’s growing student population and a small army of private-sector leaders looking to partner for economic development progress.
UBJ caught up with the early riser to capture his vision for the city.
How did you get to become the mayor of Anderson?
I’ve been a small-business owner for 25 years, and, as a small biz owner, you’ve got to do the chamber and work with nonprofits, and I did. I was the first black president of the chamber, I chaired the YMCA and I worked with United Way. I’ve been busy on the volunteer part of it but… long story short, a buddy of mine kind of dared me to run for mayor of the city of Anderson.
It was a three-person race, and it included the first black and the first woman candidates. And I got in a runoff with the incumbent, and I won. Then, it was just, what do I do next?
It’s been 10 years now, and nobody’s run against me for the last two years. I don’t know what that says. Either I’ve done a really good job, or nobody wants the damn job.
What was the plan once you were sworn in?
The city of Anderson was not broken in regards to that all cities have to protect people through police and fire, you’ve got to pick up everybody’s trash in a timely basis and keep the city clean, and we were doing that. But … I don’t think we were selling our story through marketing and so forth. I think that’s what I brought to the table.
Six, seven years ago we decided to focus on three things, which kind of comes from my mom being an English teacher with the three-paragraph essay. As a group, we decided to focus on downtown, recreation and neighborhoods. We brought that to all of our employees and said, “This is the reality of what we want to do.”
Downtown housing is a big topic for cities all over the country. What does that look like for Anderson?
We’ve torn down probably 300, 350 homes just because of the blight. For whatever reason, people had just forgotten about some inner-city neighborhoods 20 years ago, 30 years ago, and we had to clean up that part of it. When you tear out 350 homes, you have to figure out a way to build them back. It’s hard to get the private sector to go in, so organizations like Homes of Hope and Nehemiah Corporation, they’ve done a great job partnering with us to make that happen. We still have a ways to go, and we’ve identified about 100 homes that probably need to be torn down or are not livable. That’s one focus of what we’re doing, and that seems to be going in the right direction.
Is the affordable housing issue harder to deal with in Anderson than elsewhere?
I think it’s everywhere, and throughout the Upstate. I’m an Upstate guy, I don’t believe in those county lines that some people still believe in. I was a founding member of Ten at the Top, and I get the whole idea of the 10-county region prospering. If Greenville does well, we do well. If Oconee County does well, we do well. It’s the 10-county region. Having said that, I think that’s an issue in all of our counties. Even switching gears to our downtown, probably five years or so ago, [Greenville Mayor] Knox White and his council had a fall retreat here. … The gist of their retreat was – and this was five years ago – if Greenville was such a great place, if they’ve done such a great job, why aren’t more people living down there, in the city of Greenville?
What we’re on the cusp of here in Anderson is there are a lot of people who want to rent apartments. They’re coming out of the suburbs and they want to have that urban setting. You look at the number of cranes in the area of Greenville and the apartments and the condos; I think maybe they answered that question for themselves.
Many cities are shifting resources to grow a local entrepreneurship culture and appeal to young people. Is that the case in Anderson?
One of the strategies is to start growing our own entrepreneurs, and having them start in high school. … Now, this strategy is citywide as opposed to downtown. Every city might have a vibrant downtown, but now we think we’ve gotten enough traction downtown to start offering incentives and resources to other businesses.
One of our advantages is we have one of the fastest-growing colleges in the Southeast with Anderson University. It’s doubled its enrollment in 10 years, from 1,500 to 3,000 students, and one of the things that I campaigned on when I ran 10 years ago was that we’re a university town … and the kids didn’t even know where downtown Anderson was. For a few years, we had a program where we put them on buses and brought them downtown. I think one of the cool things that we see, and it’s an indicator that Anderson is growing, is if these kids have a good experience in the city of Anderson, they’re going to stay here. We’ve seen that already.
What progress have you seen so far, and what else do you want to accomplish?
When we first started 10 years ago looking at Anderson, there were maybe five residential spots downtown. Now we think we probably have 100-plus residents downtown. Even for us, we’re filling existing buildings and people are taking buildings and doing retail and living on the second floor.
One of the great things about downtown Anderson is it’s a historic district, and it’s connected and it’s walkable, as opposed to Spartanburg or Greenwood. Others … they maybe tore down too many buildings, and we don’t have that because it’s a historic district. People have to jump through a lot of hoops to make changes, but I think that’s an advantage.
I think probably a couple of metrics that we see is continuing to improve downtown. We had a marketing study done about five years ago. And right now we’re just following the plan, and that’s something that coach always had, he always had a plan. You’ve got to follow the plan.