By Dean Hybl, executive director, Ten at the Top
There was a time in America when regardless of the size of the community, the commercial heart of any town or city was its downtown or Main Street. These commerce centers were typically oozing with energy and vibrancy as they included stores, banks, restaurants, the post office, local government buildings, and many other components of an active community.
As communities began to spread out in the 1960s and 1970s, many Main Streets and downtowns went from being the epicenter of the community to a forgotten and often dangerous place where few good things happened and most dared not venture.
Having only lived here in the Upstate since 2010, I have a hard time imagining a time when downtown Greenville was not a vibrant showpiece. However, I have heard from many who did grow up in this area that for many years Main Street was little more than a vehicle thoroughfare for people passing from one part of town to another.
Of course, today downtown Greenville is lauded as a national model for creating both community and economic vibrancy and is one of the more attractive features for making the Upstate a tourist and business destination.
Many Main Streets, downtowns, and neighborhoods of all sizes across the Upstate have a rich history of being the local epicenter for their community. When Ten at the Top developed Our Upstate Vision through the engagement of more than 10,000 Upstate residents in 2010 and 2011, one of the areas identified as being important for the Upstate was to maintain and grow the vibrancy of our individual communities, downtowns, and neighborhoods.
While not every downtown has prospered to the level of downtown Greenville, there are many other places across the Upstate that have recognized that returning vibrancy and commerce to their downtown core and neighborhoods is a key strategy in growing their economic base as well as developing a sense of place for their local residents and visitors.
In 2013, Ten at the Top and USC Upstate partnered to develop Great Ideas for Community Vibrancy, which highlighted 50 examples from across South Carolina and the United States of communities and neighborhoods of all sizes that had cultivated their local vibrancy through a project, event, or initiative. We then brought representatives from 10 of those programs to the Upstate and held four community vibrancy workshops across the region.
In conjunction with those workshops and to help create new vibrancy initiatives across the Upstate region, local developer Phil Hughes established the Hughes Investments Elevate Upstate Community Vibrancy grants. The original commitment was for $10,000 per year (two grants of $5,000 each) for five years.
Since the first grants were awarded in 2013, Hughes has actually provided $57,000 in funds for vibrancy initiatives in 17 communities across the Upstate.
Because vibrancy, sense of place, and local needs are different in all communities, the projects funded through the program have also been very different, but all have helped reinvigorate Main Streets, neighborhoods, or even organizations across the Upstate.
Included among the projects was the creation of the Greer International Festival. Though it was funded only once through Elevate Upstate, the festival has become an annual event in Greer with an estimated economic impact of more than $100,000 for the local community. The city of Laurens created their Finally Friday music series in 2015 through an Elevate Upstate Grant, and the monthly event has become a key component of the Main Street program in Laurens.
Though Ram Cat Alley has long been a staple of downtown Seneca, it was through a grant to the Blue Ridge Arts Council that they were able to create a series of artistically painted cast-iron cats that now dot the landscape of the community. They have become a favorite scavenger hunt for children in the area, as the cats are regularly moved from place to place in town.
Those projects represent only a handful of the vibrancy initiatives that have popped up across the Upstate due to Phil Hughes and the Elevate Upstate program.
For 2017, the grant process brought 22 applications that have now been narrowed to five finalists. Those potential projects are for new vibrancy initiatives in Landrum, Seneca, Abbeville, Laurens, and Greenwood. Each finalist will make a final “pitch” during the Ten at the Top Celebrating Successes Brunch on Nov. 16, and the 2017 grant recipients will be announced that day.
If you would like to learn more about the Elevate Upstate Grants, Ten at the Top’s Community Vibrancy initiatives, or register to attend the Nov. 16 Celebrating Successes Brunch, please visit tenatthetop.org.