Roanoke Times Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: SUNDAY, May 29, 1994 TAG: 9405270072 SECTION: HORIZON PAGE: F-5 EDITION: METRO SOURCE: By SANDRA BROWN KELLY STAFF WRITER DATELINE: GREER, S.C. LENGTH: Long
This city, population 14,000, sits 60 percent in Greenville County and 40 in Spartanburg County. And, until the last few years, about all it did was sit.
Just three years ago, with more than 20 percent of its residents over 60 years old and its per capita income the lowest in the area, Greer was dying, an official says.
"And a lot of it was our own doing. We didn't encourage growth this way," City Manager Ken Westmoreland says.
But things started to happen that changed the sluggishness.
Pharmacy owner and operator Don Wall was elected mayor, for instance.
State Sen. Verne Smith, who lives next door to Wall, says the mayor is "a trash mover and a stem winder. Which means, he's pretty aggressive."
Wall, mayor for 21/2 years now, says he was simply a businessman who didn't like what was happening to his city.
He says Greer was in financial trouble and dipping into its reserve fund for operating money.
"We had to raise taxes, cut services or aggressively annex to broaden our tax base," Wall says.
He decided to run for mayor on a platform of "aggressive annexation."
Westmoreland, who had been Spartanburg's manager for 10 years, was hired by Greer about six months before Wall became mayor.
The two men were perfect allies, Wall says, because Westmoreland was an expert in the state's annexation laws.
New political leadership primed the pump for growth, but the real juice started flowing in June 1992 when the state negotiated a deal to sell nearly 1,000 acres of Spartanburg County land to BMW for a plant site. The property is four miles from Greer's downtown.
Initial community reaction to BMW was ambivalent, Westmoreland says.
"Some said: 'Greer'll never be the same. All we'll get is traffic.' They were right about the traffic," Westmoreland recalls.
As soon as BMW began to build, several hundred gravel trucks started rolling by city hall each day. And when 1,500 construction workers came to the area, Westmoreland began getting questions like: "What is your ordinance on escort services?"
"We didn't have one," he says. "We got busy and passed one."
Greer officials also asked the state to build a bypass road to get the city out of the line of truck traffic BMW would generate.
The state refused.
Greer, which had begun an annexation suit to about double its 7.5 square miles, retaliated.
The land Greer coveted spread out in two tentacles, one into Greenville County and one into Spartanburg, but did not include the BMW site.
When the state refused to build the bypass road, Greer officials redrew the annexation lines and wrapped the Spartanburg tentacle around BMW. Greer said in the new annexation that it would use the $2.7 million in anticipated annual tax revenue from BMW to build its own bypass.
"The governor's office went to the moon," Westmoreland says.
"They got a restraining order to get us to back off, but we had them legally, and they knew it."
Greer got the road. The first phase of the $6 million bypass is four miles long, but it will open up 10,000 previously undevelopable acres near the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport, also four miles from Greer's downtown.
The city is sitting pretty.
Two runways are being extended at the airport and a cargo runway will be built so that Lufthansa Airlines can land with its load of BMW engines and taxi over to the plant to unload.
Westmoreland says something akin to the mechanical arms used at railroad crossings will be installed where the planes need to cross a public road to get to the plant.
He expects that will be a sight to see. Also, BMW is building a museum at the plant and projects it will attract 20,000 visitors a month to tour the manufacturing facility. And, wouldn't you know it, Greer plans to landscape its road connection to the bypass to invite visitors to BMW to visit downtown Greer.
"This bypass is an economic development tool in its own right," Westmoreland says.
Part of the city's strategic plan is to lure upscale outlet shops to downtown. It also plans to build a transportation museum near old Norfolk Southern and CSX stations; the railroads intersect in Greer. One of the depots already has been renovated for retail space.
Negotiations are under way with developers to put up a hotel and convention center across I-85 from the BMW plant on a 200-acre site that was recently annexed by Greer.
The community is adding about 1,000 new houses a year. The city encourages development by splitting the cost for providing water and sewer services, Westmoreland says.
Growth isn't free, though.
Westmoreland - whose staff totals three, including him - is advertising for an assistant city manager. He's growing the police force by one officer a year, going slow so the city can absorb the extra expenses.
He says the city has pledged not to raise taxes and to live within its means. Growth has increased tax revenue, and the city has imposed new hookup fees on the Commission for Public Works. Also, the business community chipped in $300,000 as an economic development budget.
Forever, Greer has been caught between two economic development bulldozers, Greenville and Spartanburg.
They wouldn't share their business prospects, but every now and then Westmoreland would be asked by one of the counties to chauffeur a prospect around to look at land. Each would warn him not to show land in the other county.
"That was kind of hard to do since main street meanders in and out of both counties," Westmoreland says.
"Within five years, BMW will be just another business on the interstate. Its number of employees is lower than other industries already here and others pay just as high wages," Westmoreland says.
BMW is serving Greer well, however. Fortune 500 companies are calling to ask: "Why did BMW come to your area?"
Where will Greer be in five years?
"We have a base plan, for five, 10 or 20 years from now," Westmoreland says. "We know what development is acceptable and what isn't."
"We've told a lot of chicken parts plants we don't need them any more."