Greenville’s corporate leaders urged to face the growing problem of ‘two Greenvilles’

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Look from one of downtown Greenville’s rooftop venues and you can see two Greenvilles.

There’s the Greenville where the economy is at full throttle. Cranes dot the skyline, and apartments, hotels, office, and retail have been built at a rapid pace over the past few years. It’s the Greenville that inspired the popular tagline “Yeah, THAT Greenville.” It was the Greenville seen by the campaign cabinet of the United Way of Greenville as they looked at downtown during a retreat held at Up on the Roof, a rooftop restaurant and event space at the new downtown Embassy Suites, earlier this year as nonprofit members talked strategy for reaching the organization’s $17 million fundraising goal for this year.

Then they turned around and looked in the direction of the Kroc Center and beyond. There, they saw another Greenville.

Kurt Rozelsky, a partner at the Smith Moore Leatherwood law firm and chair of this year’s United Way campaign, relayed this story at last week’s Corporate Leaders Breakfast hosted by the nonprofit.

“You realized that there was ‘Yeah, THAT Greenville,’” said Rozelsky. “We’ve celebrated the successes of Main Street, but just 2 miles from here in Nicoltown, people are struggling.”

They’re struggling in West Greenville, too. There, mere blocks from downtown, the average household income is around $14,000, an amount that would be gobbled up paying a year’s rent at some of the newest apartments downtown — gone before paying for food, utilities, insurance, a car, and the gas to go in it.

In West Greenville, only 14 percent of residents have at least an associate degree. Forty-four percent of residents have no access to a car. Unemployment is at 17 percent, when the rate for Greenville County as a whole was 3.9 percent in July.

“We don’t have a jobs problem; we have a people problem,” said Bo Aughtry, principal of Windsor Aughtry Company, which has developed hotels, most in downtown.

Carlos Phillips, president of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, said Greenville doesn’t have the talent to fill some of the jobs that are open. There is sixth-tenths of an eligible person for every job vacancy in the area, he said.

“We have a people shortage, a shortage of qualified people, a shortage of people with access to a job,” Phillips said.

Aughtry said gentrification has forced many line employees who work in downtown Greenville to live further from the city’s core, making it more difficult for them to get to and from work if they don’t have a car. If they do have a car, the cost of parking downtown is an obstacle.

“Public transportation in this city needs to be greatly improved,” he said, and also noted that a line employee at one of his hotels starts at about $20,000 per year.

Aughtry added that the last bus for the route many of those employees take leaves downtown at 4:30 p.m. “People are still working at 4:30. You can get a job in Greenville, but you have to be able to get to it.”

Mark Farris, president and CEO of the Greenville Area Development Corp., said part of the problem is that not enough workers have been trained for the production jobs of the future.

“Greenville has the elements in place to train these employees. We have to train our children that manufacturing is an option,” he said.

But Lillian Brock Flemming, a Greenville City Council member and an educator, said part of the problem is parents who believe their children must go to a traditional four-year college to be successful and view manufacturing jobs as dirty and unfulfilling.

“We have the children there,” she said, citing an increased interest in career and technology fields. “We need to get the parents there.”

Phillips, who came to Greenville from Louisville, Ky., said transportation, education, and wages were issues in Ferguson, Mo., but the community did not address them in time. Something similar happened in Charlotte, N.C., too, he said.

“It was really a result of things being neglected,” he said. “We have a wonderful opportunity in Greenville to work together to address those needs. I’m not predicting any sort of civil unrest in Greenville, but people have a way of expressing their concerns if they are not met.”

 

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