The Magazine of South Carolina


Crossroads of the Upstate


Spartanburg County Public Library

Advantica Plaza

The Church of the Advent

Ike's Korner Grill

Lawson's Fork Creek

Article by Daniel E. Harmon; Photos by Daniel E. & Courtney Harmon

There hardly can be a more daunting assignment than telling the Spartanburg story in 2,000 words or fewer. Never mind its legacy as a rail hub - which, to a high degree, continues. Never mind the untold tonnage of products, mundane and mysterious, transported through here in all directions since the 1800s, the celebrity passengers and the no-less-fascinating hobos, the families planted and the industries nourished. Focus only on the busy here and now, and on the plans laid for a promising future, and you’re equally overwhelmed.

So much is happening in this upstate county seat, population 40,000, that "sometimes I think even I don’t know half the projects that are underway," enthuses Mandy Merck, the city’s public relations and information director. Merck, who grew up in nearby Gramling, returned to her homeland after graduating from Winthrop University and working four years at a Myrtle Beach bank. The changes she’s witnessed since joining the city administration 13 years ago have been extraordinary.

"I have a passion for downtown. It’s the heart and soul of Spartanburg. When I first started working here, so many buildings were boarded up. Now, downtown is the place to be. A lot of small businesses have come downtown. Once it started, it became contagious. One restaurant opened, then Abby’s Grill, then Ellis An American Bistro, and it’s continued. There are only a handful of empty buildings now; there used to be nearly half."

It’s a different kind of business atmosphere, thriving in its own right. A few merchants, including apparel retailers Price’s Store for Men and Carolina Cash, have been Spartanburg fixtures for generations. Most others are more recent. "Years ago, it was all pretty much retail - Belk’s, Woolworth’s," Merck reflects. "There’s a unique mix downtown now. It’s truly a new Spartanburg."

It isn’t just a mixture of specialty shops. Attractive new apartments, some housed in strikingly refurbished period structures, have waiting lists. Within a five-minute walk of popular central lunch establishments are the county’s acclaimed main library, city offices, Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium that brings in Broadway shows and sell-out concerts, the award-winning daily newspaper, and churches of at least six (more, depending on how fast you walk) denominations. Within a five- to ten-minute drive are multiple businesses and industries, a major shopping mall, two hospitals, six higher learning institutions, many more churches and public parks, and two interstate highways - the modern component of Spartanburg’s "hub" signature.

James E. Talley, a native son and career educator who joined City Council in 1982 and later served two terms as mayor, says the greatest change Spartanburg has undergone during the last two decades is intangible. "The biggest difference is the change of attitude toward progress and development. For a long time the city was kind of apathetic about trying new things and finding new ways to get things done. We’ve gone from being a city where people thought ‘We can’t do that’ to an attitude of ‘I think I can—I know I can.’ Peo-ple started pulling together to make sure Spartanburg is recognized for the part it’s playing in the progress of the upstate."

When city leaders talk about downtown development these days, they generally begin with the Renaissance Park project, the most extensive public/private development in Spartanburg history. The revitalization will include a 250-room Marriott hotel/conference center. Workers broke ground last October on the Marriott, scheduled to open in autumn 2003. Other assets of $120-million Renaissance Park will be pedestrian malls, offices, an arts center, nature trails and residential communities, with a nine-hole executive golf course in the center.

"The Renaissance Park project is going to be huge for us," says Jules Bryant, executive director of the Spartanburg Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). "It will be the cornerstone of redevelopment downtown. The large hotel will allow us to attract conventions we’ve had to turn away. The par-three golf course, the arts center - all that will really transform the downtown area. Having that many people will create a new demand for restaurants and shopping."

Businesses and industries long have been attracted to Spartanburg’s ideal location and friendly atmosphere. They’re still coming. Extended Stay America, the nation’s fastest-growing company-owned and -operated hotel chain, is building its headquarters in the middle of town. It joins such corporate residents as Milliken & Company, Michelin Tire Corporation, the R.R. Donnelly & Sons international printing firm, and Lockwood Greene Engineers Inc., reportedly the oldest continually operating architectural and engineering company in the U.S. (since 1832).

Textile firms were the city’s 20th-Century leaders. One of the few to survive is world-renowned Milliken & Company. Based in Spartanburg, it employs more than 16,000 people in 60 plants. Its durability is attributed largely to diversification. Of the almost 50,000 kinds of items Milliken has developed through the years, many of the latest are chemical products such as coloring and plastic components.

"I think one of the most interesting things to watch is what’s going to happen to all of our old mills," Merck says. Prospects are promising. Local businessman Jimmy Gibbs bought the vacated Beaumont Mills site. While a portion was demolished to construct new health care facilities, the 113-year-old mill building was preserved. It has been donated to a group interested in bringing the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame and the Motor Sports Museum of the South to Spartanburg.

The city was incorporated in 1880, a convening of the rails amid rolling hills of farms and cotton mills. Older residents remember when much of today’s eastside commercial district consisted of orchards. "Peaches and textiles were what you had here," says Bill Ayres, a veteran Milliken engineer. "The international companies that first took an interest in Spartanburg were textile-related. The mills attracted machinery companies from Europe. Then came BMW and its suppliers." More than 100 foreign firms representing 20 countries now call Spartanburg home.

Of the city’s notable state and national leaders, foremost was James F. Byrnes, a U.S. senator, U.S. Supreme Court justice and key member of FDR’s administration. Spartanburg native Larry Mahaffey notes the oft-told story that the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan was made in a war cabinet meeting at a home in Converse Heights, the city’s stately old residential district.

Like Spartanburg’s industrial scene, its colleges and universities are seasoned but not stagnant. "Building and booming" is the way Bryant characterizes Converse, Wofford, USC/Spartanburg, Spartanburg Tech, Spartanburg Methodist and Sherman College of Straight Chiropractic - one of the few chiropractic training centers in America. "They’re all unique," observes Carrie Coleman, CVB events coordinator. "They draw students interested in obtaining different types of education. Students come from across the Southeast, all over the United States and overseas."

Spartanburg is home to the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind. The National Beta Club, a scholastic honors organization, is headquartered here.

Late June to mid-July is pageant season in the Hub City. Both the Miss South Carolina and Miss Teen South Carolina pageants are staged at Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium. Summer also is show time of a different nature at Wofford College, where the NFL’s Carolina Panthers train. "That brings many visitors to town," Bryant says, adding that the pro football players contribute time to local children’s projects.

Spartanburg is a city that likes to celebrate. Spring Fling weekend officially heralds fair weather in May. The International Festival in October showcases the city’s broad tapestry of cultures and culinary tastes. In between, the Music on Main outdoor concert series presents musical variety on Thursday evenings (except in the heat of summer). The new, multi-million-dollar Zimmerli Amphitheatre at Barnet Park brings more concerts, from symphonic performances to rock-and-roll. Merck terms "The Zim" a world-class outdoor stage, noting it was designed by the same team who designed the amphitheatre in New York’s Central Park. Its name honors Kurt Zimmerli, a Spartanburg industrial leader and the largest contributor to the amphitheatre’s $1-million bandshell construction.

Year-round, arts and athletic programs draw audiences constantly to area schools. Spartanburg and Dorman high school sports and academic teams perennially are in the chase for Class 4-A state championships. The city is rich in musical and theatrical talent; colleges and public schools often combine resources and facilities for exceptional performances.

It’s also becoming known nationwide for its literary talent. The Hub City Writers Project publishes works by local essayists, poets and fiction writers, and sponsors writers workshops and competitions. The project has won awards and been featured in national periodicals.

For peace and rejuvenation, citizens enjoy numerous city and county parks within the city proper. Spartanburg is home of Hatcher Garden and Woodland Preserve. The Cottonwood Trail system along Lawson’s Fork Creek, thanks to efforts by the Spartanburg Conservation Endowment Inc., offers close-up encounters with bird life and flora. Vast, landscaped meadows and ponds attract picnickers and dog walkers daily to Milliken & Company’s grounds.

Dining options are diverse. Members of the Hub City Writers Project regularly confab at The Sandwich Factory on Morgan Square, one of several upscale bistros. Many locals will point you to Ike’s Korner Grille for the world’s best cheeseburger, Boots & Sonny’s Drive-In for the best hotdog - but others insist it’s the other way around. The Beacon Drive Inn is a world-famous burger mecca.

Not in the mood for bun fare? Ask directions to Woodward’s Café, treasured for its home cooking. For a brewpub menu, try R.J. Rocker’s on Morgan Square. Around the block, Java Jive is known to high school and college students across the upstate. You can enjoy exceptional German dishes at Gerhard’s Café, exceptional Italian at Renato Ristorante, exceptional Thai at Shanghai-Thai House. You’ll find numerous steakhouses, Mexican and Asian restaurants, delis, even seafood venues.

Residents will tell you they love Spartanburg for two important reasons: It’s in the right place and it’s the right size. Everything they need is here, but not in overwhelming, pollution-laden, traffic-honking proportions.

Asheville native Harvey Scherr worked as a Milliken engineer 30 years before retiring here in 1985. Why did he choose to stay? "It’s the most temperate climate I’ve experienced. You’re as close to a large city as you’d like to be, and there’s a world of opportunity right here. You have a good educational system, colleges and a technical school. You have mountain trails to hike. You have culture. Travel connections - Amtrak, the city airport and two international airports - are just a short drive away."

"There is this incredible energy sweeping over Spartanburg right now in which so many individuals and groups want to do their part in contributing to the betterment of this community," says Mayor Bill Barnet. "Construction activity is everywhere you turn and new projects are waiting in the wings to begin. Private citizens are donating sculptures and seeking sponsors to pay for beautification projects. Efforts are well underway to raise the funds to build a world-class center for performing and visual fine arts. Spartanburg is becoming truly a world-class community."

Yet, it retains "a more friendly atmosphere than any other place I’ve ever been," Scherr says. "Whether you’re pumping gas, you’re at the Post Office or the supermarket, people are willing to help you. This is a place to stay. I wouldn’t leave it for the world."

* City of Spartanburg
* Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce
* Spartanburg Convention & Visitors Bureau

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