Urbanizing cities of the U.S. Southeast, such as Columbia and Greenville, South Carolina, and Asheville, North Carolina, are facing the trade-offs of continued growth. Speaking at the 2018 ULI Carolinas Meeting, the mayors of those three cities discussed how and where their cities invest to attract job growth, while attempting to avoid displacement of longtime residents.
“We are engaged in a fantastic experiment to turn Columbia into an entrepreneurial hub,” explained Steve Benjamin, the city’s mayor. “We’re trying to change the paradigm to show that private capital is welcome.”
That is a challenge in itself. South Carolina’s capital city has struggled with high crime and has a poverty rate of almost 25 percent, close to double the U.S. rate. Meanwhile, well over half of the city’s real estate is not on the tax rolls, a problem typical of capital cities.
Benjamin understands that attracting business—including the tech sector—will require a wholesale shift. Mayor since 2010, he started by focusing on the basics: rebuilding the city’s financial reserves to what they were prior to the Great Recession; reducing the tax rate to where it was a decade ago; investing $1.5 billion in the urban core, including basic infrastructure like water and sewer; and boosting public safety funding. He has got some more ambitious plans, too, including establishing a program that would pay the college tuition of Columbia high school graduates, bringing 5G wireless to the city, and revitalizing downtown.
Two-and-a-half hours to the northwest, the North Carolina city of Asheville seemingly has little in common with Columbia. Sure, it experienced a bit of a downward spiral during the recession, explained Mayor Esther Manheimer, who has been in office since 2013. But at this point, she said, the real issue regarding growth is, “How do we make it stop, immediately?”
The city grew to prominence after the Vanderbilt family built a giant estate there in the late 19th century and the Blue Ridge Parkway was constructed nearby a few decades later. It has always relied heavily on tourism.
But these days, the number of visitors to Asheville is almost out of control, said Manheimer. “Today, we get 11 million tourists per year,” she explained. “For a population of 90,000, that’s a lot.” It brings challenges to infrastructure and public safety. And while tourism clearly brings revenue, Asheville does not directly receive proceeds from the area’s room tax.
The city itself has swelled considerably in the past few years, and many residents are now calling on the municipal government to slow growth and development. Some of that dissatisfaction has taken the form of a giant debate about Airbnb, which Manheimer has described as a problem that won’t go away. Asheville now has more Airbnb units than the state’s four other most-visited cities put together—and that’s in the face of an affordable housing crisis; the city’s rental occupancy rate is below 1 percent.
In response, Manheimer and the city government have enacted a ban on whole-house Airbnb rentals. “It’s a challenge as a politician,” she admits. “People think we’re just siding with the hotel business.” But she is hoping that the new policy will make a difference.
In Greenville, South Carolina, where the ULI Carolinas Meeting was being held, Mayor Knox White seemed to be sitting in the sweet spot. His city has seen struggles—most notably during the 1960s and 1970s, when Greenville’s downtown, like many others, was deserted. But thanks to a handful of city boosters with farsighted ambitions, downtown had once again become the city’s centerpiece by the 1980s.
“We were fortunate to have people who saw that the idea wasn’t to bring it back the way it was, but instead to build it around people,” explained Mayor White. “There’s a commitment to planning here; we always have a plan.”
They succeeded wildly, thanks to public/private partnerships and some risks. “A few early successes made a difference for us—success breeds success,” said White. One of the key elements of that revitalization was the reclamation of the Reedy River, which had a waterfall near downtown. These days, it is the centerpiece of the area, which bustles with life at all hours. And the region is now home to several important industries, including BMW’s main U.S. factory.
But like Asheville and Columbia, Greenville struggles with something that is currently bedeviling many U.S. cities: affordable housing. “It’s come up on us very quickly,” said White. Some of that is due to the city’s growth; some is due to an earlier focus on homeownership that resulted in the loss of a substantial amount of rental housing. The city recently established a housing trust fund and is examining whether some city-owned land could be used for low-income housing.
The Asheville government has taken similar steps, said Manheimer, and recently passed a $25 million bond for affordable housing. It is also partnering with private builders, both nonprofit and for-profit, to create more housing.
In Columbia, Benjamin and his government have used community development block grant (CDBG) funds to partner with banks and help low-to-moderate-income families buy homes. “It’s got to be a city for all people if you’re going to be successful in 2018,” said Benjamin.
White agreed. “Maybe the most important thing will be reconfiguring the formula for successful cities in the U.S.,” he said. “That is, creating a new definition of mixed use: mixed-income residential. And using that as a platform for building cities in the future.”