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Wayne Bowers: We Need a Transformational Project

Part four of our discussion with former Greenville City Manager Wayne Bowers. Click each link for previous installments: 

Part one     Part two     Part three     Series schedule

By Anthony Noel

GREENVILLE GUARDIAN: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about Greenville – physically or organizationally – something that’s a hugechallenge and you know it’s going to be a long-term challenge, what would it be? I’m only asking because you’ve been saying “We’re still working on” this or that. You sound like a man who still has a strong sense of ownership on some of these things.

WAYNE BOWERS: I think we need what I call a “transformational project” downtown. How I refer to this is a downtown hotel, maybe a residential condominium.

We did a project in Gainesville that I would call a transformational project. We took a whole city block and we tore down everything that was there, started over – there wasn’t anything historic.

“We got a developer who

tore down that whole block

and built this project,

it covered a whole city block.”

It was right across the street from our theater, which is another thing I’d like to see downtown. [In Gainesville, i]t was called the Hippodrome, it was a community theater and they would have plays there almost all the time. They would bring in professionals from New York, and they’d mix with the local people who would do most of the roles, but they’d bring in two lead people from New York or Los Angeles or something. It was a small theater, about 250 seats, but then we had restaurants and coffee shops all around, and it was a very nice evening on the town. Everybody does it, you know, we’d go to the show about once a month.

But there was a block right across the street from the Hippodrome Theater that was kind of seedy and didn’t look too good. So we got a developer who tore down that whole block and built [this] transformational project, a five-story complex, it covered a whole city block. We had a parking garage across the street.

The first floor was retail. We got a Burger King, we got a Hooters, there was a Quiznos, we got a men’s store, a jewelry shop, a privately owned steak house, a Japanese restaurant – the first floor was completely retail.

The second floor was offices. The county took half [for] their department of environmental regulation, the other half – we were across from the courthouse also – was court reporters. So we leased the second floor out.

“It was a long, complex deal

but the city was the one

that put the real stimulus behind it.”

And then the third, fourth and fifth floor was residential condominiums, because you need to get people living downtown, not just visiting there, but being invested there 24 hours a day. Of course we had to do a lot of soundproofing with the Hooters there (laughs) – no, we had the floor of offices in between. But there were about 20 or 25 condos there. Some were two stories but most were one-story.

This was a big jump for this developer. The city did a tax increment job, which is a little bit easier to do in Florida, but we more or less subsidized it to the tune of about a million dollars. But it paid for itself in increased taxes. It was a long, complex deal but the city was the one that put the real stimulus behind it. The developer took some of the risk, the city took some of the risk.

Those units sold out pretty quick. We thought that they would be sold out to professors from the university, young doctors from the medical complex and the staff at the university. And we were completely wrong.

GG: Who was it?

WB: They sold out to the parents of the professors and the parents of the doctors, who wanted to be near the grandchildren! It turned out that the marketing was completely wrong.

They weren’t all that way, but the majority of the people moved there to be near their children. They just didn’t want to keep up a house anymore, and they could be near where their son or daughter worked, near their grandchildren, in a place that was mostly senior citizens, you know, in their 60s and 70s. It turned out exactly like it needed to, and it sold out.

In Spartanburg, it was a different transformational project. We did a big office building.

“We got them to stay in Spartanburg

by giving them a lot of incentives.

We built a parking garage there,

built a park downtown.”

Jerry Richardson, who’s now the owner of the Carolina Panthers, owned a food company in Spartanburg, it was called Spartan Foods at the time, they had the franchise for 650 Hardee’s [restaurants] across the southeast. They owned the Quincy’s steakhouse chain [now defunct], and they bought Denny’s Corporation, and they also, at the same time, bought Canteen Corporation, the vending company based in Chicago. Denny’s was based in Irvine, California. So where was the new headquarters of the company going to be?

We got them to stay in Spartanburg by giving them a lot of incentives. We built a parking garage there, built a park downtown, and they brought in this 18-story building that had about 500 employees. And it’s still the anchor for the downtown.

So those are the kind of transformational projects that I would like to see here. It can be different depending on what the niche is, but the hotel I think is the need we have eventually.

GG: Given the proximity to main campus and really to the medical campus, a hotel right down here would be amazing.

WB: Yeah, I think it would work. I worked on a hotel in both of those other cities, Spartanburg and Gainesville, and they eventually got it. It wasn’t on my watch, but I did some of the groundwork. So maybe with me leaving, they get a hotel (laughs). We’re on the verge in Greenville, I think, of a transformational project that would make downtown a pretty friendly place to be.

We were close about three or four years ago. We actually had a developer from – I guess I can talk about it now, but couldn’t at the time – but we had a developer from Cleveland who drew up some really nice plans, and they specialized in projects in college towns. They did one out at Illinois State University or somewhere out there.

They ended up pulling out when the economy went bad on itself so they went and did a job in Blacksburg, Virginia [home of Virginia Tech]. But they had plans here for a hotel and condominium and some retail downtown. Hopefully that’ll come back, but the economy just grounded that, grounded everything.

“Of all the economic development prospects

John Chafee brought to Greenville, almost every one of them

asked to see the downtown, and not a one of them

ever asked to see the mall.”

We may still be a year or two away from that, but I think we’ve got a lot of underutilized property downtown that eventually will lend itself to a transformational project, whatever the market would bear – a hotel, residential condominium, office building – whatever works, that would become a signature project downtown.

John Chaffee [president and CEO of North Carolina’s Eastern Region and Pitt County’s former head of economic development] said that, of all the economic development prospects he’d ever brought to town, almost every one of them asked to see the downtown, and not a one of them ever asked to see the mall.

That’s what I was talking about earlier: quality of life [see part three]. They look at how the community used its downtown, and if a community turns its back on its downtown, they say that community doesn’t really have a heart. I think that’s the best testimony you can get, is from people you’re trying to bring in here, to bring jobs.

GG: I want to turn towards your resignation a little bit. First and foremost, I guess, are you done now as an administrator? Are you still interested in this work? You’re certainly at an age where you can retire.

WB: Yeah, financially I can retire. I’m 64, so I’m just a few months from Medicare. I needed a break, I thought.

I’ve been doing this for 39 years and really haven’t had a break. Not hardly more than a week off at any one time in 39 years. And so at some point, you know, you say well maybe it’s time to take a little bit of a break. I doubt that I’ll be sitting at home, but I’m going to try it for a while.

GG: It’s a hard transition when you haven’t done that.

WB: I’m going a hundred miles an hour for these last few days [of my tenure in Greenville], and come Thursday [Bowers’ last day] I’m going to be at zero. But there’s things I want to do. I’ve got a stack of books at home, and I haven’t had much time to read [for pleasure].

My son who is a college professor, teaches at Radford University and for his spring break, he’s coming [to visit]. So it works out, the two of us, he’s my only son, and so we can spend the weekend together. We haven’t had the chance to do that in years.

I’ve got three grandchildren in Florida, and so we can go to see my daughter down there. And I’ve got a third [child, a] daughter, she’s a professor also, at Indiana University. I’ve never been there, and she just started her new job in the fall, she was at Michigan before, so we’ve seen a lot of Michigan but not much of Indiana, so we’re going to go see her. Just some pent-up time that I haven’t had time to do that stuff.

When you’re a city manager, you’re city manager pretty much 24/7. So I’m going to take a break, and then we’ll see what happens. I’ve had a few opportunities that people have talked to me about, and I’m fortunate that I can kinda pick – if I want to do it I can, if I don’t want to do it I don’t have to.

Look for “Wayne Bowers: Advice for Greenville’s Leaders,” the final installment in our discussion with the former Greenville city manager, debuting Saturday, March 31.

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