SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A natural beauty of falls that was once appreciated turned ugly with neglect and abuse until community leaders realized these falls were something worth preserving.
Sound like Sioux Falls? Yes but it’s also a story in Greenville, South Carolina.
Falls Park on the Reedy is the “biggest thing Greenville is know for. It’s the crown jewel in downtown Greenville,” said Brenda Cassabon, of TK Public Relations which handles public relations and similar tasks for the visitors bureau in Greenville.
The transformation of Falls Park had spurred millions of dollars of economic growth in the city’s downtown, Greenville Mayor Knox White said.
“It’s the center piece of the city,” White said.
Falls Park on the Reedy opened in 2004. So that spark for other downtown development and investment started earlier than in Sioux Falls, but the stories are similar.
Nancy Halverson, the executive director of Levitt at the Falls in Sioux Falls, has lived with both Falls Parks.
When she and her husband moved to Greenville in 2007, Falls Park of Reedy was already transformed.
“If you see the Falls, you see the bridge, it’s amazing,” Halverson said of the suspension walking bridge across the Reedy River. “It’s a sculpture.”
The Arc of Dreams across the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls is similar in its artistic function and connection to the river but the bridge in Greenville is closer connection to the falls, she said.
The 325-foot suspension bridge is called Liberty Bridge.
“We built the bridge to complement the falls,” Greenville mayor Knox White. “It’s a beautiful piece (of art).”
When Halverson arrived in Sioux Falls in 1999, “what I remember was it (Falls Park) being kind of a dead zone from the Orpheum to Falls Park.” Not a lot of progress had been made before they moved in 2007.
When Halverson and her husband returned to Sioux Falls in 2019, the transformation was well underway.
Just as development near Falls Park in the downtown in Sioux Falls the path to the suspension bridge and today’s park in Greenville was not smooth and it was long.
Two Falls Park, similar stories
More than 100 years ago the park in Greenville was admired for its natural beauty, said White said. Journals and other documents from the late 1800s and early 1900s refer to city residents taking visitors to see the falls on the Reedy River. It was the site for picnics and other gatherings.
But within decades the Reedy River was running with colors from the local textile plants that built up along the river in Greenville.
“In the 1940s and 1950s the river was polluted… it became a sewer for the dye plants. The river would run blue one day and yellow the next,” White said. “The city turned its back on the river. It was so polluted, it smelled bad.”
Just like Falls Park on the Big Sioux River, the area developed a bad reputation.
As if it were an attempt to completely ignore the falls and Reedy River, the South Carolina Department of Transportation built a four-lane highway bridge over the river in the early 1960s
“There was this beautiful falls under (the bridge), but you couldn’t see it. You didn’t know it was there,” Cassabon said.
But there were those in the community who knew the falls were there and they were determined to save it and convince others of its value.
The women behind the falls
Women were instrumental in the development of the Falls Parks in both cities. And in each, two women were leaders in the transformation vision.
Hazel O’Connor championed the revitalization of Falls Park and the Big Sioux River Greenway in Sioux Falls.
It was Harriet Wych and the Carolina Foothills Garden Club in Greenville, White said.
White said Wych referred to the highway bridge as a “concrete monster.”
From the late 1960s through the early 1990s when Wych or others mentioned developing the Falls Park area, they got eye rolls and/or controversary, White said.
“Nobody took it seriously,” White said. “But this group (garden club) always had the vision.”
The club bought several acres near the river in 1967 which is now Falls Park.
But it took the Clean Water Act of the 1970s and the decline of the textile industry to help propel interest in revamping the Falls Park area and the Reedy River.
White believed in the vision, especially after the textile industry struggled in the city and closed.
The downtown was suffering and White said restoring the falls area and river would be an economic benefit to the city.
Greenville is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northwest South Carolina, so an outdoor attraction in the city could appeal to tourists. The city is about 70,000 people with a larger metro area.
Tearing down a concrete highway bridge
White proposed the idea of tearing down the Camperdown bridge and revitalizing the Reedy River and the falls in 1989.
The Camperdown Bridge over the Reedy River. The bridge was removed in 2004. The city of Greenville photo
Removing the bridge was “one of those miracles,” White said.
Especially since White was frequently reminded “that is was a perfectly good bridge.”
Wyche and White had an appointment with the state’s new director of transportation Elizabeth Mabry (1997-2006) when White learned Mabry was president of a garden club in South Carolina.
Wyche’s response was ‘Oh, that Betty Mabry,’ White said. Wyche knew Mabry.
“It’s incredible,” White said of how the two women connected.
Mabry visited Greenville and agreed to remove the Camperdown bridge. Mabry was convinced of the benefits from the plan for the Falls Park area, White said.
The bridge was removed section by section.
$18 million investment turns into millions more
White said $18 million was invested in transforming Falls Park on the Reedy.
“When the park opened in 2004, scores of people came across the bridge,” White said. It’s tough to put into words the reaction from Greenville residents and visitors.
“They had no idea (of the view and beauty),” White said.
“Within 10 years we had over $100 million in new investments,” White said “We knew this would be an economic catalyst What we didn’t expect is for it to happen quite so fast.”
“Investment is still happening today,” he said.
White spent one recent morning at an event marking a several million investment in a hotel/resort near Falls Park.
“Before 2004, downtown Greenville was not a destination site,” Cassabon said. Falls Park at the Reedy helped change that.
“It’s been huge for our economy,” Cassabon said. “We saw a spike in the economic impact when Falls Park opened.”
Like Sioux Falls, Greenville had experienced development of motels, restaurants and other venues near Falls Park in the downtown.
Halverson said Greenville emphasized the walkability of the park and the downtown.
“One thing Greenville did really well was put in this pocket parks along the street(s),” Halverson said.
White said the community support for the transformation was critical.
Halverson said one art project is an example of a community support and how community art can connect people to the downtown.
The community has a project for the book “Goodnight Moon,” she said. The book has mice that readers need to find.
The project created sculptures of mice hidden throughout the downtown for people to find. “Every kindergarten class went to find the mice,” Halverson said.
White said Falls Park continues to lead to development to the north, just outside of downtown as a park in that area has been recently revamped.
Sioux Falls is planning improvements for Falls Park and is taking public input on possible additions.