In 2002, downtown Spartanburg was like a ghost town.
Traffic on Main Street was almost nonexistent. Parking spaces were ample. Only a few businesses operated near Morgan Square. Efforts to rebuild the city's central business district were just getting underway.
Fast-forward 12 years and there's still work to be done. But downtown is once again a bustling commercial center and a cool place to be.
"When you are in and around it regularly, it can be hard to see progress that has occurred in downtown," Assistant City Manager Chris Story said. "We're trying to be more aggressive in communicating just how important downtown is to the economic health of the region. Future opportunities will hinge on downtown being a productive place."
One of the biggest changes since 2002 is the number of jobs in and around downtown.
A recent study found that 12,000 people are employed within a 1-mile radius of Morgan Square, Story said. That number includes large employers, such as American Credit Acceptance (ACA), OTO Development, Denny's Corp. and others. Faculty and staff at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, University of South Carolina's George Dean Johnson Jr. College of Business and Economics, Converse College, Wofford College and Spartanburg Community College's new downtown campus are included — not to mention the host of nonprofits, law firms, financial institutions, media companies, restaurants, retailers, hotels, business associations, government entities and others that call the central business district home.
Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System lies just beyond the boundary of the study, Story said. If included, that would add several thousand more people to the number of jobs.
As of August, the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce said 129,897 people are employed in Spartanburg County. That means about 9 percent of all people employed in Spartanburg report to work in downtown.
Millions have been invested in downtown during the last 12 years in the form of new corporate headquarters buildings and education institutions, from parking garages to streetscape projects.
Empty parking spaces are now a rare sight during business hours. It's no longer hard to find groups of people walking, talking, laughing or shopping.
Business has picked up at the 240-room Spartanburg Marriott, Story said.
There are still some empty storefronts, and plenty have sat dormant for years. A fresh entrepreneurial buzz, however, has ushered in a new wave of restaurants, retail shops and technology companies into downtown during the last few years.
Investments from some of the county's most prominent private-sector players have fed downtown's economic ecosystem since 2002.
J M Smith Corp. and two of its divisions — QS/1 and Integral Solutions — have located their corporate offices in and around downtown.
Extended Stay America relocated its corporate headquarters to Charlotte, N.C., in 2011. Companies with ties to Spartanburg businessman George Dean Johnson Jr. — including OTO Development, ACA, Johnson Development Associates and Pure Barre — have taken up residence in the 117,000-square-foot building.
City spokesman Will Rothschild said other more recent indicators of just how far downtown has come include the Wall Street Project, Northside Initiative, Schuyler Building renovation (also known as the Church Street Lofts), relocation of Renato's restaurant, sale of the City View Apartments and the demolition of the old Cannon Roofing headquarters off East Kennedy Street.
"There are so many things happening and going on (downtown), and we need to talk about these things more," said Tammy Devine, president of QS/1.
Devine's predecessor Bill Cobb, who now serves as CEO of J M Smith, said the company looked at a variety of locations before choosing to move downtown in 2004.
He said he believes the company made the right decision, although he never expected downtown to take off the way it has.
"We thought it would be cool to walk to lunch," Cobb said. "We came to the conclusion that we were essentially a white-collar business and we wanted to be downtown… It's an appealing place to be. I wish more people saw it that way."
Cobb said attracting talent for high-skill jobs would likely be less challenging in a larger city. The payout of being in a smaller city, he said, is a better quality of life for employees and their families.
He praised Johnson and former Spartanburg Mayor Bill Barnet for investing in downtown and leading efforts to improve the city's urban center.
"This is what putting your money where your mouth is looks like," Cobb said. "They have continued to give to Spartanburg… It has been incredibly key to downtown's success."
Story said the city will continue to develop its vision and overall plan and figure out where to best commit its resources to help grow the economy.
"We want to make it as smooth and as easy as possible (for businesses to locate in downtown)," he said. "There's no magic ingredient. It takes constant effort."
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