Mayor Q&A: An interview with Greenville S.C. Mayor Knox White

How to Sell the Tough Livability Projects

By Matt Carmichael on February 4, 2015 at 2:30 pm CST

Downtown Greenville, SC

Having an urban core that really surprises people is a major economic development tool.

Knox White, Mayor, Greenville S.C.

During the CEOs for Cities annual conference last November, random groups were assigned to have dinner together, and I found myself enjoying an excellent steak beside Mayor Knox White of Greenville S.C., which has twice been named to our Top 100 Best Places to Live . I enjoyed learning more about his city, and we finally scratched out some time for a formal chat. Here’s what he had to say about his city and his 20-some odd years as mayor.

Livability: Greenville has made a lot of progress over the years. What’s changed?

White: Tourism is something new for us. We hadn’t had that before, but in the last 10 years, it’s beginning to happen big time with weekend getaways from the greater Atlanta area as well as Charlotte. We’re close to the mountains, so the ethos of the outdoors is very strong here. The downtown itself is probably the number one tourist attraction, especially the riverfront development part.

Livability: The riverfront is a pretty amazing story. Tell me more about it.

White: It all starts Falls Park, which is the centerpiece of the city. It’s a 40-foot waterfall that was covered over by a four-lane concrete bridge for 40 years. We took down the bridge after much controversy and created this beautiful park, which really sets off the river. Now it’s a riverwalk with hotels and restaurants. The entire downtown is pretty much done. The river was the worst of the area in the beginning. We have major retailers returning to downtown.

Livability: Do people still complain about the missing overpass?

White: I had someone come up to me yesterday and say, “I used to have a store on Main Street back in the ‘70s, and I was against everything you guys wanted to do, and boy was I wrong.” About once a month someone says that to me.

Livability: How do you balance the need to preserve what has made Greenville great with the need for progress?

White: We’ll have our growing pains for sure. I guess my only answer is we do stress good design. We stress getting the walkability and the green space. Those are the important things to do: To mitigate and address the livability aspects of the growth and make sure it’s the right kind of growth. We’re not against growth.

Livability: And how do you handle the influx of residents and tourists?

White: We’re in the midst of a development boom across the city. We have about 12 to 15 apartment and condo projects that are under construction, but in terms of tourists, there are three big hotels under construction and three more right behind them.

Livability: Does that cause tension?

White: No, everybody likes what they’re seeing. Everyone in this community is very supportive of the changes that have taken place. I think they’re very proud of it. [Downtown is] the first place you take your friends and visitors. There’s a sense of ownership about.

Livability: How have changing ideas of livability changed your policies over the years?

White: Seems like every city I go to now is into bicycling, but we beat them to the punch. About 20 years ago, we started putting in the system. It’s a lot of bike lines and an 18-mile bike trail system through the city. It’s all flat. We’re getting ready to replicate that on the other side of the city with another 5 miles. We have very strong political support for these initiatives. We can’t build enough bike trails or green space to meet demand. In some places, it’s still controversial, but it’s not here.

Livability: And what are you planning now for 2015?

White: We’re looking at expanding. Any given weekend there are usually at least two music events on Main Street and along the river. We’ve been doing that for decades since back in the days when we were trying to entice people to come into the downtown. Now people do it anyway when there’s nothing going on. We don’t really need to do it as much, but we still do.

Livability: You mentioned that creating the riverwalk was controversial in its time. How do you sell the tough projects?

White: At this point, it’s getting easier because success breeds success. A lot of cities are trying to get that first project done when people don’t believe in their downtown. We’re past that, and I’ve lived through both, and it’s a big difference. You can start comparing things, “If you liked that, you’re really going to like this.”

Livability: It sounds like its been worth it.

White: It’s a major recruitment for businesses. This city has BMW, Michelin; General Electric is huge here. The health-care system trying to recruit doctors … having an urban core that really surprises people is a major economic development tool. We didn’t plan it that way by “oh my goodness” in terms of recruiting people and companies; it’s become the biggest thing.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Matt Carmichael is a contributing editor and former editor-in-chief of He is a recognized authority on demographics, consumer trends, economic development and best places to live.

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