MAKING STATESVILLE ‘COOL’
Local civic leaders look south of the border for inspiration
By John Deem
There was a time when looking at Rock Hill, S.C., as a model city would have been a sign of retreat from progress.
But when leaders and members of the Greater Statesville Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Statesville Development Corporation crossed the South Carolina border for a joint retreat last fall, the Rock Hill they discovered no longer resembled the city once defined largely by its empty textile mills and by it leaders’ decision in the 1970s to put a roof over two blocks of downtown in an ill-fated attempt to create an “urban mall.”
An ambitious combination of public and private investment has transformed Rock Hill from a slumbering Charlotte suburb to a bustling hub of innovation and tech-driven industry. And that once-enclosed downtown? The city razed the roof in the 1990s, and the downtown is now alive with restaurants, pubs and a farmers market.
The Old Town Amphitheater - really just a makeshift venue in the courtyard of City Hall - draws national acts that Rock Hill residents once had to travel to Charlotte or Columbia to see. And amenities such as the Giordana Velodrome, one of only about two dozen high-banked racing tracks for bicycles in the U.S., are drawing participants and spectators from across the country for events, and exposing the city to a new wave of potential transplants.
Those newcomers tend to be young professionals - the very demographic Statesville's business leaders see as the potential fuel for economic growth in their city.
“We still have to play the economic development game of providing incentives to entice large industry to come to the area,” said David Bradley, president of the Greater Statesville Chamber of Commerce. “Over the course of the last several years, however, we see business choosing to invest in communities that have higher percentages of 25- to 45-year-olds.”
Which, of course, begs several questions: Does the city use job opportunities to lure young professionals? Or does a ready pool of young professionals ultimately lure the companies that provide the jobs? And who drives the effort to lure young professionals? Is it government, through incentives and public investment? Or is it industry, creating jobs as it expands. In Rock Hill's case, it was little - or a lot - of both.
“Long-lasting changes are rarely solely publicly or privately led,” Bradley explained. “Most of the time, major community transformation comes about through public-private partnerships. That’s what happened in Rock Hill. Several private investors worked with the city on efforts to bring about a new vision and … vitality for downtown. That is what we should strive for – expanded public-private partnerships.”
A prime example of that kind of partnership is The Hive, a collaboration between the City of Rock Hill, York Technical College, Winthrop University, web-marketing company RevenFlo, and Comporium Communications (the former Rock Hill Telephone Company).
At The Hive, Winthrop and York Tech students design websites, free of charge, for non-profits. Those students not only get hands-on experience, but they develop local relationships that often help convince them to stay in the area after they graduate.
Jason Broadwater, founder and president of RevenFlo and a key player in the creation of The Hive, got the attention of Statesville leaders when he spoke at the Greater Statesville Chamber of Commerce’s Future 5 Breakfast last September.
“He touched on topics such as the internet, collaboration, entrepreneur econosystems, revitalizing downtowns, talent recruitment, the creative services, the millennial generation, the supply chain shake-up, and the new role of the public sector,” said Marin Tomlin, executive director of the Downtown Statesville Development Corporation. “He discussed a lot of what is happening in Rock Hill with their efforts in economic development and job creation, (and) there were a lot of people excited about the message they heard and what was happening in Rock Hill. So when we started talking about a retreat, Rock Hill seemed like a perfect place to go.”
One of those who did go was 30-year-old Alex Walker of Walker Robinson Clark Insurance in Statesville, who said he saw examples in Rock Hill of what Broadwater had discussed here two months earlier.
“Let’s say you have a job opening (and) you are looking to pay $50,000 salary for this position,” Walker says. “If you have a ‘cool’ downtown, you may only have to pay $45,000 for that position because you have a vibrant, happening downtown. If you don’t, you may have to pay $55,000 to get that position filled."
Bridgewater refers to that $10,000 as a “cool tax.”
“So, by investing in downtown, we will bring people in as well as make it easier for industry to hire millennials instead of them moving to Greenville, S.C., where people are willing to make less and have more fun,” Walker said. “Doing things like the sculpture park and downtown art, in general, makes it a cooler place without spending tons of money. ... I think we have been appropriately proactive in that we’re doing the small things right to make this an amazing community without building some monstrosity of a development hoping that people and businesses come to fill it.”
Walker cautioned that while there is much Statesville could learn from Rock Hill, there are clear contrasts between the two cities.
“(Rock Hill is) doing well at attracting young entrepreneurs, but after I stopped many young people that Thursday night and asked them what they did in Rock Hill after work, they all said they go to Charlotte or Fort Mill (S.C.),” Walker said. “I think Statesville is moving in the opposite direction.”
That's because Statesville residents are less likely to see themselves as living in a suburb of Charlotte. That's a good thing, Walker insists, because it means people want to work and play here.
“We could do a little better attracting young professionals, but I think we need to work on filling the skilled, well-paying jobs that we already have available instead of concentrating on bringing in more,” Walker added. “We have a great downtown and it is only getting better. Let’s work on (expanding) downtown residential (choices), filling current jobs, and filling the last few available buildings downtown. In my opinion, we are light years ahead of Rock Hill.”
Richard Griggs, 34, program director for the Statesville Recreation and Parks Department, also attended the Rock Hill retreat, which he said served as incubator for ideas here at home.
“Not everything that Rock Hill is doing would be a great fit here, but I do think the visit was a great opportunity to discuss ideas and concepts,” Griggs said. “We have to continue to make Statesville appealing for young professionals and families not only to relocate here, but to stay and invest their time, talent and treasure into helping our community manage growth while maintaining the authenticity and character of Statesville that make it a special place to live.”