Thursday, July 7, 2022

National Award Nomination Shows Downtown Florence’s Vision and Commitment to Transformation

by Jenny Boulware, Main Street SC Manager 

In 2022, the Downtown Florence program became one of eight Great American Main Street Award semifinalists — an extraordinary achievement and a major validation of the work that the City of Florence has been putting into its downtown for years. This award, known as GAMSA, is considered the highest honor in downtown management.

Downtown Florence is one of five accredited Main Street programs in the Main Street South Carolina network. Because they became a semifinalist in their very first year of applying, showing how much they exemplify the Main Street Approach for transforming downtowns and neighborhood business districts, it’s worth celebrating how they got here. 

As recently as the 1990s, Florence’s downtown was a significant example of decay and neglect, despite the strength of the area’s economy and the many efforts over the decades to improve this historic core. The renewed efforts to transform the district in the 2000s and 2010s met with an understandable amount of skepticism. This time, the city picked up traction, and the successes went well beyond infrastructure upgrades, events and beautification. The last decade has seen new hotels and apartments come to the area, alongside new performing arts centers and a museum, with more on the way. 

The Kress Corner development in downtown Florence, seen before and after redevelopment. Photos: City of Florence. 

Main Street SC stresses the importance of tracking data to demonstrate economic value, and Florence is a program that uses dedicated software for this. In 2021 alone, Downtown Florence counted $24.8 million in public and private investment, alongside 15 new businesses and 94 new jobs. 

We are fortunate to have the insights of Florence’s Development Manager Hannah Davis at our Main Street SC conferences. Most recently, she spoke at our retreat in Greenwood on the value of Main Street accreditation. She noted that it’s not simply an achievement to add to the resume — it can become something that economic development officials can leverage to “help you land developers in your town, create jobs, generate buzz, help your organization apply for grants,” and more. 

Hannah is also known for enthusiastically preaching the value of the Main Street Approach — not just as a box to check so that a downtown district can be a Main Street community, but rather as a proven framework that really can transform a community when local leadership commits to it. This means having a board that reflects the true diversity of the district to give meaningful leadership and direction, a full-time program manager for large districts and a part-time manager for small districts, a dedicated budget, and a concrete transformation strategy and work plans. 

The building that now houses the Carolina Bank headquarters in downtown Florence, seen before and after its redevelopment. The new top floor resembles the original top floor, which was removed later in the building’s history. Photos: City of Florence. 

As part of their GAMSA application, Downtown Florence created a video dramatically illustrating the community's transformation, full of business owners’ perspectives. Winning GAMSA in the first year is unheard of, and Florence was no exception, but I know they will not rest until they make it happen. 

While Florence reapplies for GAMSA, it’s worth remembering that it is only one of many Main Street SC communities, operating at different levels of readiness. We have many programs making amazing achievements around the state. Learn more about what the Main Street SC programs are doing by following us on social media.