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Photo by Tim Kimzey, Spartanburg Herald Journal
By Alyssa Mullinger, Staff Writer
There’s hardly a block in downtown Spartanburg today where you won’t find economic development taking place. Whether it’s the construction of new residential units or hotel rooms, expansion of longtime staple restaurants, or renovation of historic buildings for a variety of uses, activity in the city’s center is at a high.
Some of the latest projects underway and others recently announced are perimeter projects that are helping expand downtown’s vibrant footprint. In other words, development spurs development — something that’s already apparent with the activity happening around the new AC Hotel.
City leaders and area developers believe these projects will help provide infill development with new ventures in long-vacant buildings, and spur more investment that will push the downtown perimeter further outward and enhance key gateways to the city.
“We, for many, many years, didn’t focus on our downtown. And now for the last 10 or so years we have, and we’re starting to really show what that means,” said Bill Barnet, CEO of the Northside Development Group and a former Spartanburg Mayor. “I think that what is emerging with all this growth and new investment that downtown is getting shaped differently and probably wider.”
John Bauknight, a broker with NAI Earle Furman and principle of Longleaf Holdings USA, said the current level of activity downtown is more than he’s seen in his 30-plus years in Spartanburg
“The number of projects is tremendous. We’ve got developers and real estate professionals from all over the Southeast right now starting to come on to the scene,” he said. “I think we’ve really crossed a line. Between 2007 and 2014, we didn’t have that going on.”
Smart strategic growth
Unlike some cities with more linear downtowns, Spartanburg’s core is more spread out.
Jansen Tidmore, executive vice president over the chamber’s Downtown Development Partnership, said the way in which the city was formed as a grid puts its downtown at a very unique, strategic and advantageous position for economic vibrancy.
“Our physical footprint is quite expansive and large and has a lot of opportunities for infill development and perimeter development that branch into a larger, common positive theme,” he said. “We call it smart strategic growth. I think we have a lot of land to work with and a lot of buildings to work with, and I think we can add a lot of density.”
Depending who you ask, downtown Spartanburg often is considered the area bounded by Pine Street, East Daniel Morgan Avenue, South Daniel Morgan Avenue and Henry Street. Near the edges are the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, the Spartanburg Marriott, RJ Rockers and the YMCA of Greater Spartanburg.
Tidmore said downtown can be considered to include Wofford and Converse colleges and part of the Northside neighborhood near the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine campus.
According to the city’s downtown master plan formed in 2007 and 2008, downtown further encompasses the Converse Heights neighborhood on the east, the South Converse and Hampton Heights neighborhoods to the south and the Highland neighborhood up to John B. White Sr. Boulevard to the west.
“Morgan Square is thriving, and we feel really good about that,” Assistant City Manager Chris Story said. “If you look beyond the square, the basis of our downtown plan and our urban code is to connect and fill in that geography.”
Developments along downtown’s perimeter and near key entrances into Spartanburg’s core are helping to expand what’s traditionally considered the city center, Tidmore said.
This includes projects on downtown’s west end like the nearly completed 10-story AC Hotel by Marriott, which is owned by Spartanburg’s Johnson family and being developed and operated by OTO Development.
“RJ Rockers and the Grain District started this push to the west, and the AC Hotel has helped solidify that end of downtown,” said Geordy Johnson, CEO of Johnson Development. “When you approach from the west and arrive at the AC, you feel like you have reached a destination.”
Since the hotel was announced a few years ago, more project have come to fruition.
At the same intersection, construction is underway on developer Royce Camp’s five-story mixed-use building, and RJ Rockers Brewing Co. is expanding its operations with The Silo. Just down the street, Coldwell Banker Caine and the Farmer’s Table restaurant are relocating and expanding inside the former Iron Yard building.
“I think what you’ve seen is a shift of the center of downtown,” said Bauknight, who co-owns RJ Rockers. “The growth has come our direction, and I’d love to see it jump the railroad tracks. There are still a lot of good opportunities out there.”
Tidmore said other recently announced developments will serve as downtown boundary-stretching projects.
To the east, Greenville-based Centennial American Properties will be building a multi-story mixed-use development at the southeast corner of East Main and South Pine streets, with United Community Bank as the cornerstone tenant.
To the northeast, Upstate business leaders Jimmy Gibbs and Andrew Cajka soon will begin construction on a five-story mixed-use building for offices, a restaurant and rooftop entertaining on land adjacent to the St. John Street parking garage and along Liberty Street.
And Forge Capital Partners out of Tampa, Fla., is looking to build a 200-unit apartment complex on 7 acres of land behind the Spartanburg Marriott and Barnet Park.
“So many times you try to sprinkle developments around and it doesn’t work, but we’ve got some strong staple projects going in these perimeters,” Tidmore said. “As those perimeter projects happen and we continue to build from the core out, that grabs everything in between.”
But downtown growth is not just about gateway or boundary-stretching projects.
Developers and downtown business owners believe that coupling perimeter projects with new infill developments and rejuvenation of long-vacant spaces will attract more economic investment to the city’s core.
“Our downtown has fantastic bones and a traditional urban grid system. We need to continue to activate the dead spots within the existing historic fabric,” Johnson said. “The continued momentum and success of downtown helps attract additional investors and development. People want to invest where there is already some activity.”
One of the “dead spots” being revitalized is the Montgomery Building on North Church Street. The 10-story building is being historically renovated by Greenville-based BF Spartanburg to house apartments and retail/restaurant space.
“Connecting and filling in amongst all of the high-quality assets we currently have is a fundamental objective of the master plan,” Story said. “The Montgomery Building’s transition from inactive to very active soon is going to help to connect the Spartanburg Marriott and Wofford College to the heart of Morgan Square.”
Another significant project is the renovation of the former Aug W. Smith Department Store on the corner of East Main and Liberty streets. Greenville-based Blue Wall Real Estate is turning the building into apartments with retail/commercial space.
Story said that project will spur more development to the north and south of Liberty Street and help the road become an important pedestrian connection between the Chapman Cultural Center and businesses along East Main Street.
Kathy and Michael Silverman, who own two businesses on East Main Street — The Local Hiker and Hub City Scoops — have lived in Spartanburg County for nearly 20 years and are excited to see the downtown growth.
“We used to never even come downtown. But there’s been some drastic and good improvements, and the changes we’ve seen have been positive ones,” Kathy Silverman said.
Silverman said she thinks the surge in downtown development will attract more investment by increasing the need for more restaurants to accommodate more people.
And on the northern side of downtown, Barnet believes the housing, office and early childhood learning projects coming to the Northside could attract additional investment, too. In the next few years, growth in the Northside could blend that area more into downtown, he said.
“There is no great economic model in this country that isn’t directly impacted by the health and vibrancy of the central business district,” Barnet said. “Everyone in the county is going to benefit if we have a vibrant, dynamic, healthy downtown. I’m very optimistic, and I think we’re two to four years away from really changing downtown Spartanburg.”