Mike Niezer has seen Fort Wayne's future, and it looks a lot like Greenville, S.C.
At least he hopes so.
A Fort Wayne native, Niezer spent just more than a year in Greenville while finishing his graduate degree at Clemson University. He moved back to the Summit City in 2013 and saw his hometown on a similar upswing to Greenville's. Mike Niezer
"You look at what happened there, and it gives you a good idea of what's possible here," Niezer says.
"What happened there" is Greenville's vibrant downtown that somehow looks simultaneously historic and modern, its strong arts and entertainment scene, its blossoming startup environment, and its thriving community that has lured major employers, like Michelin, BMW and Hitachi.
Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau named Greenville the fourth fastest-growing city in America. The progress was ushered along by elements that should sound familiar to Fort Wayne residents: a downtown ballpark and a picturesque riverfront project that helped spur private development.
"Greenville started their turnaround back in the late 1970s, so they had about a 30-year head start on us," Niezer says. "Their strategies and partnerships are similar to the ones we're using in Fort Wayne; Greenville is simply doing more projects and faster. For example, we look at Electric Works as a huge project, which it is. But Greenville is working on several redevelopment projects of equal or greater size to Electric Works."
Fort Wayne business and civic leaders stop for a photo near a riverfront amphitheater and RiverPlace, a development that includes apartments, retail and office space, and a Hampton Inn.
And Greenville's projects are carefully selected to ensure they're the right fit.
Led by Mayor Knox White, Greenville's leaders focus on mixed-use developments in the urban core. They've also remained sticklers for high-quality design. It's why everything seems to belong together. The new developments are seamlessly woven in among the city's historic structures, some of which date back to the 1800s.
They started with the Westin Poinsett Hotel, built in the 1920s and renovated in 2000. Falls Park on the Reedy River followed in 2004, removing a vehicular bridge to reveal the natural beauty of a 60-foot waterfall. The Bookends mixed-use residential and commercial development opened in 2005, and Fluor Field, home of Minor League Baseball's Greenville Drive, saw its first pitch in 2007. An 1800s-era textile mill has been repurposed into an open-air special-event venue known as Wyche Pavilion.
Fluor Field helped revitalize the West End of downtown Greenville, similar to what Parkview Field did for downtown Fort Wayne.
Greenville's revitalization plan was tailored to complement the city's unique assets, including its river and historic buildings. On a recent visit to Greenville, organized by Greater Fort Wayne Inc., local leaders from the Summit City were encouraged to do the same.
"There's no one-size-fits-all plan," says Mary Douglas Hirsch, real estate development manager for the City of Greenville. "Whatever you do, it has to be unique to your particular city. We've made that a priority here in Greenville, and that's a big part of why we've had success."
Another sign of success in Greenville is a growing sense of community pride.
Atlas Local is a co-working space in Greenville, located in a repurposed textile mill.
While on the Greenville visit, Susan Trent, a partner at Rothberg Logan Warsco LLP, was part of a group that met with elected officials showcasing their city. But Trent says the enthusiasm went beyond City Hall. For example, the group's bus driver was eager to show the Fort Wayne contingent everything Greenville had to offer, even though he wasn't necessarily a tour guide.
"His hospitality and enthusiasm for Greenville was inspiring, entertaining, and, most importantly, genuine," Trent says. "It's a lesson that we can all be ambassadors for Fort Wayne. When we do that, every one of us can play a part in making this community a better place."
The return trip to Greenville reminded Niezer that it will take a community effort for Fort Wayne to reach its full potential.
"The success of Greenville didn’t happen overnight," he says. "The roadmap for our success—the success of our neighborhoods and the success of our region—is there. We just need to commit and stay the course in following that roadmap to reach our destination of a world-class Midwest city."