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Fountain Inn continues investing in its downtown

Fountain Inn has invested in its downtown in recent years, including transforming a city building into an arts center, creating a farmers market pavilion and renovating some downtown streets. (Photo/firnFOTO)
Fountain Inn has invested in its downtown in recent years, including transforming a city building into an arts center, creating a farmers market pavilion and renovating some downtown streets. (Photo/firnFOTO)

By Liz Segrist
Published Feb. 6, 2013

Empty storefronts no longer define downtown Fountain Inn.

“Six years ago, our town was dead,” said Van Broad, the city’s economic development director. “We had a 50% vacancy rate downtown. No one came to downtown on the weekends. On a Saturday, you didn’t have trouble finding a place to park because no one was here.”

Today, the city has a 98% occupancy rate.

In 2003, the newly elected City Council and Mayor Gary Long sought public opinion to formulate a new master plan, which was implemented in 2006.

Officials heard from hundreds of residents who called for both revitalization of downtown Fountain Inn and the transformation of the former Fountain Inn High School into an arts center, now the Fountain Inn Center for Visual and Performing Arts.

More plans are under way for the city, including a new boutique hotel and restaurant at the arts center; commercial development along Corridor 418; and narrowing Main Street to two lanes.

The Upstate city of Fountain Inn — off Interstate 385 about 20 minutes from downtown Greenville — has roughly 7,000 residents, 922 firms and a median household income of $42,000, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data.

It was historically a smaller town with an economy propelled by agriculture, mill villages and the textile industry, City Administrator Eddie Case said.

When the booming textile industry began dwindling and more advanced industrial manufacturing moved into the region, Fountain Inn failed to keep pace. Big-box stores moved into the area as well, making it difficult for small businesses to compete, Case said.

“It died a slow death of neglect,” Broad said. “It just didn’t keep up. It didn’t develop a vision for the future, and when it did try, there wasn’t enough political consensus to make it happen.”

Downtown’s rebirth
The city’s goals — to recruit business and people to the area — were typical of development efforts. The city’s methods were not.

From left, Economic Development Director Van Broad, Mayor Gary Long and City Administrator Eddie Case worked together with Fountain Inn citizens to revitalize downtown. (Photo/Liz Segrist)
From left, Economic Development Director Van Broad, Mayor Gary Long and City Administrator Eddie Case worked together with Fountain Inn citizens to revitalize downtown. (Photo/Liz Segrist)
Following the master plan, the city of Fountain Inn negotiated with downtown building owners in 2007, enabling the city to offer any empty buildings to area businesspeople to occupy for free during the monthlong Christmas Festival. The only requirement: the stores must remain open during the festival.

Nearly all of the buildings were filled with vendors, craftsmen, artists and other small businesses during the festival. Many of those vendors set up shop permanently downtown, like Rory Curtis who recently opened Carolina Olive Oil on Main Street.

“I set up Dec. 3, and by Dec. 20, I was completely sold out of everything. Completely,” Curtis said. “I had to stay.”

Carolina Olive Oil, Empire Ltd. Studio, J. Peters Grill & Bar and Paisley’s Salon and Boutique all recently moved in, among others. El Patron is set to open in February. Progress has been slow but steadily increasing in downtown.

The city also revamped Depot Street, which runs parallel to Main Street, beginning in 2008. In addition to repaving the streets and putting the power lines underground, the city was able to build a farmers market pavilion, an amphitheater, a fountain with swings surrounding it, a history museum and a new Fountain Inn Chamber of Commerce location.

“This is Fountain Inn’s West End,” Case said. The city used downtown Greenville as its model for development, but on a smaller scale.

The $3 million Depot Street project was funded through hospitality tax funds, city reserves, private donations and grants. The city had a 1% mill increase about six years ago. The farmers market now averages 600 people each Saturday from June to September.

“The economy was starting to crash and things were tough. We had the discussion of whether to move forward with these projects or to batten down the hatches and wait out the economy,” Broad said. “We decided that if we don’t move forward in a tough economy and attack it head on, we wouldn’t be ready to move forward when the economy does turn around.”

The farmers market pavilion also serves as a business recruitment tool, like with Suzi’s Hand Crafted Jewelry, which initially sold at the market and now has a location on Main Street.

“When I first came into this town, it was dried up. It was empty,” said co-owner Suzi Fowler, a Fountain Inn resident for more than 20 years. “Now, all of the downtown store fronts are full. People are walking around and businesses are open. I’m able to successfully run my business here. Downtown is night and day from how it used to be.”

Broad moved to Fountain Inn from Charleston to be a music director at a local church. He became the city’s first economic development director with no background in the field, but his friendliness and tenacity secured him the spot.

“We wanted to bring people and events to downtown to revitalize it,” Broad said. “I started knocking on doors to get people here. Let’s show people that businesses can be successful in Fountain Inn.”

As for the Fountain Inn Center for Visual and Performing Arts, recruitment is under way for a roughly 50-bed boutique hotel to go behind it, in addition to a restaurant. Plans call for an expanded auditorium and glass atrium to be developed as well.

More to come
The city hopes to develop a commercial corridor as well. Within about half a mile from Main Street and Interstate 385, nearly 60 acres are available for development along what’s called the “418 Corridor,” or Highway 418.

After years of recruitment, Bojangles opened a location there last year, followed by Calcutt Family Dentistry. S.C. Plastics and CTI International operate along the road as well.

Broad envisions an entrance similar to Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research, followed by a grocery store, shopping centers, medical offices, restaurants and a hotel. The city doesn’t have a hotel within its limits. Citizens hope for both a hotel and bed-and-breakfast to encourage tourism.

The city also wants to widen sidewalks and narrow Main Street from three lanes, including a turn lane, to just two lanes.

A high school is set to open in 2017, the first in the city since 1957. This could attract more residential developments to the area as the manufacturing industry continues to boon in the area. ZF Transmissions recently finished its nearly 1 million-square-foot facility a few miles from Fountain Inn with plans to hire 1,300, and Bosch Rexroth recently expanded its Fountain Inn facility with plans to hire 160.

“People think there’s nothing happening here or that it’s too far away from Greenville to visit,” Fountain Inn Mayor Gary Long said of overcoming the city’s stigma. “They just need to see it once to understand the amazing developments happening and the amazing things in store here.”

The catalyst
The economic impact from the Fountain Inn Center for Visual and Performing Arts ripples through downtown as people visit the city and stop to shop and eat locally.

“I wanted this to become the tool that drives revitalization of downtown, both economically and culturally,” Broad said.

The center, built in the 1930s at 315 N. Main St. and listed on the National Historic Register, served as Fountain Inn High School from 1939 until the late 1950s. It then became an elementary school until the late 1990s, at which time the county sold the building to the city.

“It was controversial at the time because no one had plans for it then,” Broad said. “But it was visionary for the council and administration to take a chance and buy it.”

The critics had some cause for concern. It sat mostly vacant for years, except the city’s use of it for administration, public works and courts. The city also would rent it out to dance companies, selling about 1,000 tickets in a season.

In 2007, the city hired Broad — a lover of the arts and performer himself — who began transforming it into a full-time arts center, funded by the city. The city allocated $600,000 this year for the center, which aims to be self-sufficient.

He recruited programming from around the Upstate with the goal of being “Peace Center-lite,” Broad said, referring to downtown Greenville’s successful programming at the Peace Center for Performing Arts.

The Art Haven School of Art moved to the Fountain Inn Center for Visual and Performing Arts after 12 years in Simpsonville, increasing class sizes from 20 students to 150.

The first season in 2008 brought in 6,000 tickets purchased. In 2012, the center had more than 25,000 tickets purchased. The center had 30 shows in its first season, which increased to 80 shows in 2012.

“It has had a pretty significant return on investment for Fountain Inn,” Broad said. “It’s hard to find a place to park downtown on a Saturday now, and that’s a good problem to have.”