What Economic Development Lessons Can We Learn from Visiting Greenville?

By: John Sampson on September 4th, 2018

Planning, Partnerships and Persistence Key to Achieving Shared Vision

While Greenville, S.C. may be more than nine hours away from Fort Wayne, telling a different story and making decisions based on its economic needs, we’ve admired the community’s progress, development and investment since a delegation of Fort Wayne and regional leaders visited back in 2005. Although I missed that trip, I learned from area leaders of the remarkable progress Greenville was making and the plans its leaders had to continue revitalizing their community.

This year I was fortunate to attend the Greenville trip, hosted by Greater Fort Wayne Inc., and thankful for the opportunity. I, along with more than 20 community leaders, witnessed the results of Greenville’s quest to build a walkable downtown focused on attracting people to live, work and play in upstate South Carolina.

After visiting for three days, exploring the community and meeting with local leaders, I took home three economic development lessons from the short trip.

  1. Planning
  2. Partnerships
  3. Persistence

Planning 

I was struck by Mayor Knox White’s commitment to a long-term vision for high-quality neighborhoods and a walkable downtown centered on the needs of residents. Serving as mayor since 1995, Mayor White stuck to his tenacious vision to make his city “the most beautiful and livable city in America." As best I can tell, he has held to that vision. Then, working closely with Greenville’s city council, these leaders planned, step-by-step, the actions necessary to realize the vision. After over two decades in office, it was clear that careful planning was necessary to facilitate partnerships between the private and public sector to execute on the vision.

Partnerships 

Greenville leaders proudly touted their ability to form the necessary partnerships to confront tough challenges and work out creative solutions to achieve results. Again and again, they tackled each challenge, whether it was housing, commercial development, a ballpark, entrepreneurship, demolishing a bridge that blocked their river from public access, rebuilding a dilapidated historic hotel…you get the idea.

None of these challenges were viewed as the “city’s” problem or the “private sector’s” work.

The problems were viewed as “ours,” making it clear that the community would conquer them through numerous formal and informal partnerships.

Simply, they just referred to their process as “working together.”

Persistence 

They also acknowledged that they didn’t get it right every time. In fact, we heard stories of community spaces that weren’t functioning as intended. So what did Greenville do? They went back multiple times to make sure that the project achieved the intended result. I was totally impressed by their honest reflection in admitting that there was risk in their attempts, and they were willing to confront failure as a necessary step in achieving the vision – “good” would not be good enough for Greenville in its quest to be “the most beautiful and livable city in America.”

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What does this mean for Northeast Indiana? 

There are so many applications and lessons in what we observed in Greenville in 2005 and what we see today.

Even more, we have now recorded multiple lessons learned from the numerous cities and regions that we have visited over the past decade, like Durham, N.C. and Des Moines. Those learnings are playing out every day, even when we might not recognize our progress. 

The visit to Greenville allowed us to witness first-hand what could be in store for the future of Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana. It taught us that planning, partnerships and persistence are even more important than we thought before.

Whether it is comprehensive city planning happening throughout the region, our Vision 2030 goals, the Road to One Million plan or other region-wide initiatives, each one represented a vision of what could be.

The lesson? Plan, execute, check for results, go back to step one, plan and execute again.

I am sure you won’t miss the significance of “partnerships” to Northeast Indiana. 

Our region is well known for collaboration through trust-based relationships. Whether formal or informal, these partnerships are the foundation of working together here. Partnerships have been clearly evident in almost every project we have committed to.

Public-private partnerships have produced the results necessary for the momentum we are enjoying today throughout our region.

Every project of the $256 million of the Road to One Million plan leverages the state’s public funding to attract private sector investment. Take stock of the numerous partnerships formed to accomplish riverfront development in Fort Wayne, Buffalo Street in Warsaw, Eagles Theatre in Wabash, Thunder Ice at Trine University, South Adams Trails, the Fahl Aquatics Center in Columbia City and many others. All are examples of Northeast Indiana’s reputation of working together to accomplish what we thought not possible only a few years ago.

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And then, there is persistence and tenacity. Playing out before our eyes is Electric Works, with all of the associated emotional ups and downs of what might become one of the largest public-private partnerships in history for a Midwest community.

Yes, we could bemoan past failures through the process, or we can learn from the benefit of persistent determination to get things done despite our challenges. Better yet, let’s learn and move forward, together.

Yes, our region is now well-recognized for a unique and powerful strength in collaboration. That’s evident through the “collaboration on steroids” mentality represented in the work of the Regional Opportunities Council, the LEDO Council, the Mayors and Commissioners Caucus and now most recently by Northeast Indiana Colleges and Universities. Each of these “coalitions of the willing” are case studies in what can be achieved when we are willing to persist through our differences by working together.

How many other examples are there throughout our amazing community where planning, partnerships and persistence have paid dividends? Watching the progress another community is making through actions very similar to our own should both reinforce our vision and inspire us to be bigger, bolder and more persistent!

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