I imagine that tourism is a tricky business. What attractions and businesses do you need in a community to capture and keep a visitor for more than one day? Not every community can have a Disneyland, nor every town an Eiffel Tower.
Personally, I feel it is the simple things that are sometimes the most attractive, but few communities realise they have it in their power, or have the energy and initiative, to create something special.
Greenville, South Carolina, is a living, breathing example of how to create something out of nothing. The residents are obviously passionate and proud of their city and are not afraid to invest their energies, and their all-important dollars, to benefit both locals and visitors alike.
We visited Greenville as part of a short but convoluted road tour of the USA (see my post about looking for James Taylor). On the surface, Greenville could be viewed as basically another smallish city in the deep south of the USA. It is bustling, super-friendly (Hi Y’all), mad-keen on American football and full of flapping banners from competing universities. It is when you get out of the car and onto the streets that you get the true sense of the city and how it has been rejuvenated to stand out from the crowd.
In the early days, Greenville was a mill town. Cotton mills were prolific, and woollen mills and a paper factory all clustered along the edges of the Reedy River. In 1915 it even branded itself as the Textile Centre of the South. Viewing historical photos, I can only imagine the impact these industries had on the local economy but also the environment.
Today there is little evidence of the negative impacts of the mills, and the Reedy River has been restored and enhanced to make it virtually unrecognisable in comparison to those industrial days.
The Reedy River, at the foot of Greenville’s main street, is now part of the Swamp Rabbit Trail. This trail stretches a superb 21miles (33.8km) through forests, valleys and riverside parks, linking four communities in Greenville County. Each year the trail grows and snakes (or should that be ‘hops’?) through the picturesque County as funds become available.
While any community can create a park or a trail, the thing that really caught our imagination was that much of it was, and continues to be, funded via philanthropy. Reading the Swamp Rabbit Trail promotional material, opportunities to sponsor and donate abound, and include benches/seating, bike racks, mile markers or even ‘buying’ a section of the trail.
I realise that Australians do not have a strong philanthropic culture but just think what we could create in our communities if we did?
I spent many hours walking through Falls Park and Cleveland Park – adjoining parks in different parts of Greenville – but all connected by the Trail. It was obvious to me just how popular this walk was, with locals of all ages walking and cycling, and visitors such as myself armed with cameras and smartphones.
The valuable thing is that the community has recognised this ‘infrastructure’ as not only good for a healthy lifestyle, but also a solid economic generator. Research conducted in 2014 showed that businesses neighbouring the Trail reported up to 85% increase in trade due to the passing foot and cycle traffic. It also found that 25% of trail users were visitors and they invested $6.7million in the local tourism economy. Yes, there is money in the great outdoors and we, as individual donors, can influence that.
Philanthropy was not only evident by the river, but also up and down Greenville’s main street. The whole street has been converted into a public art space with an easy stroll from one sculpture to the next. I realise sculpture is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if the aim is to slow down the foot traffic and encourage people to spend longer in the CBD (thereby benefiting business and economic turnover), then this is an ideal tool.
The 40-odd sculptures range from bronze busts of civic forefathers, accompanied by panels of historical explanatory information, to exuberant lifelike violin and flute players dancing in the forecourt of some non-descript corporate structure. The majority of these works were funded by private individuals or families in memory of someone, or for their own posterity I guess.
All the sculptures were linked together as part of an informal walking trail which moves you from the top of the main street to the bottom – yes, sharing the love amongst the business community.
The really clever thing they have done in this city is to include sculpture targeted at children. A dedicated Mice on Main sculpture trail has been developed which is literally one great mouse hunt. Nine tiny bronze mice are hidden in mysterious places along the main street and children use a treasure-hunt-type map to discover them all. How tricky is that? It engages the younger members of a travelling party, captures the whole family for longer (eating, drinking and shopping) as they walk, systematically moves visitors throughout the community, AND it is community-funded.
As you can tell, Greenville certainly left an impression and inspired us to think about what we could be doing in our own home town to enrich our community and add to the tourism arsenal. Greenville is a fantastic example of a community with a bit of vision and a lot of energy to bring their dreams to life. Their efforts have built a rich and vibrant community with a very high quality of life for themselves, but they have also created cultural and environmental tourist attractions that encourage people to visit, stay and spend.
Win, win, win.
What: Greenville has a population of around 62 000 people. We stayed at Hampton Inn and Suites situated on the Reedy River in downtown Greenville. Access to the Swamp River Trail and the sculptures is free but you can also join themed walking/cycling/segway tours with a variety of commercial tour companies.
Where: Greenville is in the north-west corner of South Carolina, USA. You can fly in/out of Greenville/Spartanburg International Airport or access it by every other mode of transport.
When: We were there in early Spring and the flowers were just starting to pop open.
Why: Greenville is a picture-perfect introduction to the southern states of the USA. Friendly and warm people, interesting arts, tempting shopping, historic architecture, southern cuisine, a jazz scene and plenty of outdoor activities.
How: We drove from Washington DC (as you do) in a hire car. The road network is excellent.
Who: One man pretending to be on a serious research project (well yes, he actually was) and me being a serious tourist!
Related Posts: Looking for James Taylor
Related Blogs: for the low down on all things Greenville, have a look at this blog: http://www.lovegreenville.com/blog/