Once a center for the textile industry, Greenville, South Carolina has reinvented itself as a mecca for a diverse range of industries – as well as for the arts – transforming what was once a sleepy southern town into a booming international hub.
“There is a combination of factors that create a unique environment in Greenville,” says J. Mark Farris, President/CEO of the Greenville Area Development Corporation (GADC). Add together a low cost of living, an exceptional educational system, a strategic location along I-85, a good transportation network, and a dynamic pro-business climate supported by corporate tax incentives, workforce development programs, and an entrepreneurial network of resources; the result is a city that is highly competitive in the global marketplace.
“The combination of factors make it an excellent location to find qualified labor, but also at the same time to lower total cost of operations,” Mr. Farris explains. Throw in a high quality of life with plenty of outdoor recreation and entertainment options, and Greenville falls at the top of nearly anyone’s list. Indeed, the city consistently ranks as one of America’s top places to do business and best places to live.
Greenville’s industrial success can be traced back to the early 20th century, when northern textile operations migrated to Upstate South Carolina. “Our international acclaim began in the heyday of the textile industry,” Mr. Farris explains. The concentration of so many textile operations in one location naturally drew related businesses to the region. “As the textile industry began to develop and evolve, most of the machinery and equipment manufacturers were overseas, primarily in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. So as the textile economy continued to boom, a lot of the manufacturers in those western European countries found their way to the I-85 corridor and set up shop here.”
The textile industry lost much of its significance in the later part of the century – but Greenville managed to hold on to its reputation as a lucrative business location. “That familiarity with the Upstate of South Carolina, and with Greenville in particular, created an opportunity for us in the automotive industry,” Mr. Farris recalls. The region’s big break came when BMW chose the nearby city of Greer for its North American manufacturing headquarters. “Obviously, the BMW decision was a benchmark for us in the Upstate.”
The automotive industry continues to be a cornerstone of the Greenville area economy. Since 1994, BMW and Upstate automotive suppliers have invested over $3 billion and created more than 7,000 local jobs. The cluster is supported by the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR), a partnership between BMW, the state of South Carolina, and Clemson University. Located on a 250-acre campus along I-85, the premier automotive / motorsport research center is home to the Clemson University Graduate Engineering Center, which offers advanced degrees in automotive engineering and motorsport technology.
In the two decades that have passed since the BMW plant opened in 1994, a remarkable number of multinationals have followed suit. “That familiarity with the textile industry among the manufacturers in those western European countries opened the door for an additional industry sector, especially automotive. But since then, we have built on that with aviation / aerospace and other targeted industry sectors.”
A highly skilled, innovative workforce and a strong entrepreneurial community have proven critical in transitioning from textiles to automotive, and enhancing the automotive industry with a range of additional clusters. “Greenville has done a really outstanding job of developing its workforce in the manufacturing arena. Michelin, BMW, General Electric – a lot of these benchmark companies recognized pretty early on that they were able to find the talent they needed in Greenville. And as a result, they were quick to consider [Greenville] as an option for any kind of expansion.”
Highly ranked educational facilities help prepare the local workforce. Greenville is widely acknowledged as “having one of the best STEM programs in the nation in terms of our training and workforce preparedness,” Mr. Farris points out. Nearby, Clemson University boasts “one of the more highly rated engineering schools in the nation.” Clemson University and Greenville Technical College have teamed up to create the Center for Manufacturing Innovation (CMI), which will “further solidify our position in terms of manufacturing innovation.”
A number of major aviation / aerospace companies have relocated to Greenville to take advantage of the region’s well-educated workforce and low cost of doing business, including Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, GE, Michelin Aircraft Tires and Cytec Carbon Fibers. The aircraft turbine business is a particular area of specialization, as well as Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) also known as Aircraft Inspection, Maintenance and Safety (AIMS).
The Greenville area specializes in the development and manufacture of all kinds of advanced materials, from mesoporous and magnetic materials to shape memory alloys and optics. Local research facilities specialize in industry-crucial technology, including polymer technology, advanced composites technology, and ceramic technology.
The region’s many pharmaceutical and medical device companies – including Bausch & Lomb, Nutra Manufacturing, and Perrigo – are beginning to form a bioscience cluster in the Greenville area. The region’s workforce currently ranks fifth in terms of largest MSAs dedicated to the biosciences, and partnerships with Clemson University provide an ideal foundation for research and development.
Greenville’s location, transportation network and reasonable labor costs make the area an ideal fit for the distribution and warehouse sectors. Data centers are also a local specialty, as are financial services, IT engineering services, and call centers. In total, Greenville is home to more than 40 Fortune 500 companies, over 20 headquarter operations, and more than 240 international companies.
The city’s many international companies have transformed Greenville into a remarkably diverse community. “We really are an international city,” Mr. Farris remarks, and the city’s diversity and forward thinking mindset have helped create a burgeoning cultural scene. When it comes to hipster enclaves and creative hotspots, “we are right up there with Austin and Nashville. [We have] one of the best emerging art communities. It is a happening place.”
Greenville’s transformation to an artistic and cultural destination did not happen by accident. “There have been decades of hard work that went into that,” Mr. Farris shares. “It doesn’t happen overnight.” Today’s success can be traced all the way back to the late 70s and early 80s, when local leaders made a conscious decision to put the time, energy, and resources into making Greenville a city that would be known for its arts, culture, and quality of life as well as its business opportunities.
Greenville’s downtown showcases the city’s commitment to creating a livable environment. “The downtown area is phenomenal,” says Mr. Farris. Ten years ago, the city spent $13 million building Falls Park, which surrounds a dramatic waterfall that runs right through the middle of Greenville. Before the revitalization, this remarkable asset was hidden beneath a bridge for more than 40 years. Now, the old bridge is cleared away and pedestrians can enjoy a phenomenal view of the upper falls via a curved suspension bridge designed by world-renowned architect Miguel Rosales.
The multi-use facility, which also includes gardens and an array of public art, serves as an oasis within the city as well as a starting point for visitors and residents to enjoy all that Greenville offers. As LonelyPlanet.com explains, “It starts right in town in Falls Park… inviting trails and gardens greet visitors, leading off to a revitalized Main Street, with local shops, craft-beer pubs, and a global array of restaurants.”
The Swamp Rabbit Trail also runs through the center of downtown. Built along an old railroad, the 17 mile long greenway has become a significant asset to the community. “It has spurred quite a bit of retail and residential development along it,” Mr. Farris reports. “It is used by thousands of people daily.” The popular trail has become “the go to area at lunch and after work for exercise,” and serves as a promenade for shoppers visiting a trendy stretch of upscale retail establishments and restaurants.
To be sure, mild weather year-round, the Swamp Rabbit Trail, and an abundance of hiking, camping, and mountain biking opportunities in the nearby mountains make Greenville a good spot for outdoor enthusiasts. “Greenville offers an opportunity to have an active lifestyle,” says Mr. Farris. “We are a good outdoor town. That is something that a lot of younger, more educated folks are looking for.”
And the city’s sustained success is garnering national attention. “Over 30 communities a year come into Greenville to look at the secret.” This secret, Mr. Farris insists, boils down to “dedication, commitment, and having a vision.” The local economy is responding well to the vision; new businesses continue to move in and existing businesses continue to expand. Most notably, General Electric just announced a $400 million expansion, “one of the largest expansions in the nation.”
Greenville is all set to keep moving forward. “I think we have a self sustaining momentum.” Mr. Farris warns that “failing to plan appropriately” is one of the greatest traps that a successful city can fall into, but he is confident that local leaders will continue to support Greenville’s growth. “As long as we are diligent about the process, we can sustain the momentum and make an even better community.”