Once the textile capital of the world, Greenville, S.C., now aggressively markets itself as a premier location for corporate headquarters and major manufacturing facilities. Located just over 100 miles from Charlotte, N.C., in the Southeast's busy I-85 corridor, Greenville was once home to 13 large mills producing textiles for everything from household goods to clothing. When many of those mills moved overseas, Greenville was left with abandoned factories and rising unemployment.

Over the past 25 years, Greenville had to reinvent itself and attract different types of businesses. Hubbell Lighting recently opened its new headquarters in Greenville; Michelin Tire Corp. built its largest manufacturing plant and North American headquarters in the area; and BMW has one of its largest and greenest manufacturing facilities outside of Germany there. While Greenville has not seen the explosive growth of larger southeastern cities such as Charlotte or Atlanta, its population is expected to grow at a steady 5-percent clip through 2011. Greenville County has 417,166 residents, and the 10-county “Upstate region” of South Carolina has 1,297,943 residents.

The city's formula for success — offering many big-city amenities in a low-hassle small city — appears to be working, as the metropolitan area has seen more than $1.4 billion in new capital investment and 6,000 new jobs in the last five years. According to the Greenville Area Development Corp., in the past few decades, the South Carolina Upstate region had more foreign investment per capita than any other region in the United States.

The downtown has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, thanks to several public/private ventures that have built hotels, office buildings, stores, restaurants, and condominiums. After the textile industry left, Greenville's downtown was scarred with the blight of abandoned brick buildings. Many of those buildings were turned into lofts, artist studios, restaurants and other small businesses. Few national chain restaurants or stores are in downtown Greenville, as city planners strived to attract independently owned and operated business to give the downtown a distinctly homey feel.

In Greenville's Falls Park on the Reedy, the Liberty Bridge is nationally known in architectural circles for its innovative suspension design. It crosses Reedy River and links the walking/biking trails that wander through the downtown area. Greenville now even has its own miniature version of Boston's famed Fenway Park. West End Field, home to the Greenville Drive, the Boston Red Sox “A” League minor-league baseball team, has the same dimensions as Fenway Park and a miniature version of Fenway's Green Monster.

Greenville, like many cities, was faced with a dying downtown in the 1960s as shopping centers lured major developers, retailers and consumers to the suburbs. Howard Pickett, of George Pickett & Associates, a manufacturers' rep in Apex, N.C., says the downtown was “rough and not a place to be in, before the redevelopment. Old mom-and-pop shops left to go to the suburbs,” he said.

That has changed. The redevelopment of downtown Greenville began 25 to 30 years ago with a solid plan, says Sam Johnson, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Farmer Electrical Sales Inc., a manufacturers' rep in Greensboro, N.C. The renaissance began in the late 1970s with a streetscape plan that changed Main Street from a four-lane thoroughfare to a two-lane tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly cityscape. The first successful project in the rebuilding of downtown Greenville was Greenville Commons, which included a Hyatt Regency hotel, convention center, stores, parking and a public park. Previously, there had been no major hotel downtown. The 1990s brought a new performing arts complex, the Peace Center for the Performing Arts.

After 2000, Johnson says Reedy River running through downtown became the focus of redevelopment. This is when Falls Park on the Reedy was built. When the park was completed, demand for condos and retail space nearby exploded, he says.

Condominium units have been popular downtown. “Both high-end and moderate-level units are so popular they are auctioned off at preconstruction,” says Steve Deaver, Greenville area manager for Electri-Products Group Inc., a manufacturers' rep based in Greensboro, N.C.

Downtown Greenville has also developed into a dining and entertainment destination. The downtown's central business district of about 1.75 square miles now has more than 3 million square feet of office space, about 80 restaurants and about 130 shops, according to a May 12 article that appeared in the Huntsville Times.

Mickey Hughes, president of Southeastern Electrical Distributors, Greenville, says his company participated in many of the downtown projects, including the Peace Center for the Performing Arts; The BiLo Center, a 17,000-seat arena; and Riverplace Condo. Similarly, Electri-Products Group's Steve Deaver said his company provided electrical products through electrical distribution for Liberty Center and Falls Park, the Peace Center and the baseball park.

Several more projects are on the drawing boards for downtown Greenville, including McBee Station, a 14-acre development that includes apartments, lofts, condos, a Publix supermarket, Staples, other stores and restaurants. The city's Design and Preservation Commission also recently approved revised plans for the Peacock Hotel & Spa, an eight-story luxury hotel.

This construction has attracted many electrical distributors, and today 30 to 40 electrical distributors compete for business in the greater Greenville area, says Earl Jones, commodities manager of Shealy Electrical Wholesalers, Greenville. Two years ago, recognizing that it needed more room to grow, Shealy Electrical Wholesalers sold the downtown location it had occupied since 1945. The company, which focuses on the industrial/OEM, contractor, automation, residential and utility markets throughout South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, is now located near the I-85 corridor, says Jones, who has been with the company for 38 years.

Deaver of Electri-Products Group Inc., says diversification is the biggest change in the Greenville market he has seen since moving there six years ago from Rock Hill, S.C. He has been covering the Greenville territory for 10 years. “This area has diversified in the types of businesses and enterprises that are here,” he says. “This used to be mills and plants and that sort of thing, but it has diversified.”

The I-85 growth corridor

When Hubbell Lighting outgrew its leased offices in Spartanburg, S.C., the company began looking at other locations. Senior management first considered relocating the company to Asheville, N.C., or Savannah, Ga., but wanted to retain the company's seasoned employees, so they chose to make the move a short one and build the new headquarters along I-85 just 26 miles away in Greenville.

“Greenville was the obvious best choice for the company's relocation,” says Ken Beale, Hubbell Lighting's director of marketing services. “Many companies throughout the Upstate area of South Carolina strongly compete in the global marketplace. As a medium-sized market, the 10-county Upstate region comprises one of the strongest manufacturing centers in the United States. The region consistently attracts large international and domestic firms like the 111 Fortune 500 companies that maintain facilities in the area.”

Herm Isenstein, president, DISC Corp., Orange, Conn., sees strong growth continuing for Greenville. Isenstein forecasts that electrical distributors in the Greenville area will sell approximately $225 million in electrical products this year — up 7.5 percent from last year.

Some new projects that have been announced for the I-85 corridor include:

  • Datran will invest $5 million and anticipates the creation of 70 new jobs at its U.S. operations in Greenville County. Datran provides surface finishing for OEMs and plastic parts manufacturers within the automotive, recreational vehicle and sports equipment industries.

  • Sealed Air Corp., a plastic packaging manufacturer, is adding a customer service center in Greenville County that would employ between 100 and 150.

  • Cytec Industries Inc., Columbia, S.C., will build a new facility in Greenville.

The housing market

Although Greenville's residential market has slowed from last year, the news is still good, in part because land is still affordable and housing is relatively inexpensive compared to other markets. The median sale price for an existing single-family home in the Greenville area was $152,500, compared to the national median of $223,800, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Building permits for the 10-county upstate area of South Carolina are down 8.1 percent for the second quarter of 2007 from a year ago, but that doesn't signal a major downturn in the region's home-building market, according to an Aug. 11 article in The Greenville News. Dale Akins, president of The Market Edge, a Knoxville-based firm that tracks residential and commercial building trends, said the decrease in the South Carolina's Upstate region is “just a natural ebb-and-flow.”

Electri-Products Group's Steve Deaver also believes the drop in the region's building permits for the second quarter of 2007 may just be a “hiccup” in the residential business. He points out that in Simpsonville, S.C., about 15 miles outside of Greenville, Jelks/Little LLC is developing Griffin Park, a large-scale community that will have more than 1,000 single-family houses and townhouses on 300-plus acres. Griffin Park is expected to take 12 to 15 years to complete.

Pickett of George Pickett and Associates says although the housing market has been extremely strong, it's showing signs of slowing down. He has noticed the slowdown in his company's sales of rough-in packages as well as finished packages for the contractors. “It has grown to the north and east, but in recent years it has grown south and west as well,” he says. “The residential market is currently slowing down due to being overbuilt.”

Greenville by the Numbers

2007 sales through electrical distributors. $225 million in electrical products this year, a 7.5 percent-increase over 2006, according to forecast data provided by DISC Corp., Orange, Conn., for www.ewhotspots.com.

Major construction projects underway: McBee Station is a 14-acre development located between East McBee Ave. and East Broad St. in downtown Greenville that includes apartments, condos, a Publix supermarket, Staples, other retail establishments and restaurants. Publix opened in late August. More than 270 luxury apartments and 22 condos and additional retail space are under construction as part of the McBee Station development.

The Pinnacle on Main, located at the gateway to Greenville's downtown, offers a mix of office, retail and residential space with amenities that other properties do not offer. It will be one of Greenville's tallest buildings and will be visible for miles.