Sandlapper Society

Newberry. Why Not?

by Donna Thorne • photo by Ted Williams

Time was when a night on the town for Newberry residents meant driving to Columbia or Greenville. Not anymore. Not only are the locals staying home, but more than 100,000 people a year now visit this charming town with its wealth of shops, eateries and historic buildings.  And the area’s economy, once dependent on cotton farms and textile mills, is now booming, anchored by high-tech industries and state-of-the-art manufacturing. So how did Newberry evolve from a small, sleepy town to a vibrant tourist mecca and magnet for economic growth? How did it come to be named one of “The 100 Best Small Towns in America?” It’s all because of an opera house.

Built in 1881, the Newberry Opera House has stood as the centerpiece of the city for 130 years and, in its heyday, hosted performances by stars ranging from Tallulah Bankhead to Tex Ritter. When moving pictures came on the scene, the Opera House showed them, too, and was remodeled as a movie theater in the 1920s. The movie theater closed in 1952 and, by the end of the decade, there was talk of demolishing the French Gothic architectural gem topped by its iconic clock tower. But thanks to the Newberry Historical Society, the landmark was spared and used for city offices and administrative space until 1994.

Two years later, a $6 million restoration of the Newberry Opera House began and was completed in 1998. With 10,000 square feet of new space and a painstaking restoration of the original structure, today’s Newberry Opera House hosts more than 200 events annually. From Broadway shows to big-name performers such as Kris Kristofferson and Joan Baez, from chamber music to country music, the Newberry Opera House offers a wide variety of top-quality entertainment.

If You Build It, They Will Come

“After our textile mills closed, we basically had to reinvent ourselves,” says Newberry Mayor Foster Senn. “So community leaders decided to start with the one asset we had.” Before the Opera House restoration, more than half of Newberry’s downtown buildings were vacant. Today, the refurbished streets hum with activity. “There were no restaurants downtown. Now there are seven,” Senn says. There are also a multitude of antique shops and other stores and businesses in the now-thriving town center where almost every building in view is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Continuing to build on existing assets, the town turned its vacant fire station into a state-of-the-art conference center for businesses and social events in 2005. Built in the early 1900s, the Newberry Fire House Conference Center now boasts a wide variety of rooms for seminars, retreats, meetings and other gatherings, providing big-city facilities with small-town charm.

Newberry’s refurbished downtown also plays host to a number of festivals and gatherings. The biggest is Oktoberfest, which pays homage to the area’s German settlers with music, authentic cuisine, crafts, games and, of course, German beer. Other events include A Taste of Newberry in June, the Irish Fling on St. Patrick’s Day and Vintage Christmas in December.

Newberry’s revitalized downtown and cultural scene has not only drawn tourists, it has also drawn industries from all over the globe.

The Art of Business

“It’s hard to get new businesses when your downtown is boarded up and there’s nothing to do,” says Teresa Powers, Newberry County’s director of Economic Development. About the same time as the Newberry Opera House project began, Newberry also began work on an industrial park near I-26.

The rebirth of the downtown and the wide range of cultural amenities are a drawing card for economic development. “The availability of the arts was one of the deciding factors when Komatsu chose Newberry for a new plant,” Mayor Senn says. And the Japanese manufacturer of heavy equipment isn’t alone. Newberry County Industrial Park is now completely occupied. “We were so successful that we developed a second site, Mid-Carolina Commerce Park. We’re putting the finishing touches on the new park now,” Teresa says.

Along with Komatsu, some of the country’s biggest companies are now located in Newberry including Kraft Foods, Caterpillar, Georgia-Pacific, Pioneer Frozen Foods, West Fraser, International Paper, Trucast, Kiswire and Shakespeare Composite Structures.

“Newberry is the number one timber-producing county in South Carolina,” Mayor Senn says. “The timber products made here, along with our food processing industries means that you’ve probably got something in your house that came from Newberry, whether it’s a 2 x 4 roof beam or a Kraft™ product in your pantry.”

Continuing to Improve

Although Newberry has seen great success in recent years, the town isn’t resting on its laurels. Last year, voters approved a 1-cent sales tax in a countywide referendum to support further capital improvements. “That says a lot about a community in a time when people are questioning taxes across the board,” says Ted Smith, executive director of the Newberry’s County Chamber of Commerce. Smith says some of the funds will be used to turn an abandoned Walmart shopping center into an expanded facility for Piedmont Technical College’s Newberry satellite campus. “The building will be triple the size of the current one and should be finished in 2012,” he reports. Not only will this growth allow for more class offerings and more students, it will also support current and new industry by conducting specialized training for future jobs.

Another project in the works is the reclamation of the old Oakland Mills textile plant, three blocks from the campus of Newberry College. “Oakland Mills operated in Newberry from 1910–2009,” Mayor Senn explains. “A private developer bought the property and is investing $20 million in turning the old mill into 140 dorm rooms for the College and 140 apartments available to the public.”

Town and Gown

Founded in 1856 by the Lutheran Church, the 90-acre Newberry College campus is located less than a mile from downtown. Its tree-studded campus is dotted with red brick buildings, four of them on the National Register of Historic Places. With 24 majors, 31 minors, 1,092 students and a 17:1 student-teacher ratio, Newberry College ensures that students receive individual attention and guidance as part of its values-based curriculum. The College is also actively encouraging students and faculty to integrate more closely with the business, arts and cultural community in the town to create what Newberry College’s new President Scott Koerwer calls, “a living and learning laboratory” for students.

“We want our students, faculty and staff to be participating members of the Newberry community, great consumers on Main Street and volunteers for the important work already taking place in the city,” Dr. Koerwer says.

Beginning this January, students will have the opportunity to intern with businesses such as The Newberry Observer newspaper. The Scarlet and Gray student-run newspaper will become part of The Newberry Observer, serving as a catalyst for increased interaction between the community and the College. Student volunteers are also helping businesses with Facebook, Twitter and e-marketing campaigns.

Opportunities such as these, as well as athletic events, homecomings, fine arts and lecture events and concerts are ways that the community can join the College and be a part of this growing relationship.

A Friendly Town with Lots to Do

Ted Smith moved to Newberry from Ohio six years ago after he saw the town featured on national television. “This is the friendliest little town I’ve ever been in,” he exclaims. “When I saw Newberry, I knew this is a place I wanted to live. It just reaches out and grabs you.” He’s not alone in his feelings. Newberry has become a magnet for retirees and empty nesters fleeing Northern winters and Florida hurricanes. 

With easy access to Lake Murray, Lake Greenwood, Parr Reservoir and the Saluda River, Newberry offers a wealth of water activities. If hiking and nature walks are more your style, try nearby Lynch’s Woods with its 4.7 miles of scenic trails or the Sumter National Forest which covers 56,595 acres in Newberry County. For a quiet respite in the middle of town, there’s Wells Japanese Garden. This small pocket of land offers ponds, bridges, pagodas and a host of exotic plants to soothe the senses. Newberry also boasts 10 other parks, six ball fields, 10 tennis courts and three golf courses. And if orchids tickle your fancy, check out Carter and Holmes. With 18 greenhouses covering two acres, Carter and Holmes is an internationally recognized source of orchids and exotic plants.

A Source of Pride

 The Newberry Opera House was indeed the starting point for the revitalization of Newberry. But it’s done more than bring in tourist dollars and new industry. It also instilled a new feeling of pride and community across the entire town. “The Opera House became the rallying point and changed the entire attitude in Newberry,” Mayor Senn says. Ted Smith says, “The Opera House project taught us we can do anything.

In Newberry, we no longer ask ‘Why.’ We say, ‘Why not?” 

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This article is sponsored by City of Newberry Parks, Recreation and Tourism; Newberry County Economic Development; Newberry County Chamber of Commerce and Newberry College.

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