STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This week, we're looking at the U.S. economy as seen from the offices of mayors around the country. During the worst of the recession, new development ground to a halt and small businesses closed their doors on many a Main Street but not in Greenville, South Carolina. And while it seems improbable that a city could thrive during the recession, Greenville's mayor credits a mix of good luck and good fundamentals.
From member station WFAE, Julie Rose reports.
JULIE ROSE: The nickel tour of Greenville starts at a window on the 10th floor of City Hall.
Mayor KNOX WHITE (Greenville, South Carolina): Our perfectly gorgeous city is very visible from over here.
ROSE: With a can of Starbucks espresso in one hand, Mayor Knox White uses his neon green BlackBerry to point out a half-dozen construction projects underway downtown. The most recent includes...
Mayor WHITE: Green space in the middle, which is an ice skating rink in the winter, kind of like our own little Rockefeller Center.
ROSE: Greenville has a population of 58,000. White's been the city's Republican mayor for 15 years and is running unopposed for another term. He's slim, middle-aged, a bit frenetic, and eager to show off the park that helped Greenville weather the recession.
Mayor WHITE: You'll see for yourself the huge impact this park has had on the city.
ROSE: Greenville has a beautiful, natural waterfall smack in the middle of its downtown that was hidden for decades by a concrete overpass, warehouses and boarded-up buildings. White took some political heat, but convinced the city to fund a 20-acre public garden around the waterfall and a suspension foot bridge above.
Mayor WHITE: The park cost $13 million. Within two years, over $100 million in private investment was created around the park - hotels, restaurants, condominiums, apartments. The entire, what we call the West End of our downtown, just blossomed.
ROSE: That was 2004, and crowds have been steady since. The timing was perfect. Development money was easy to come by, and projects were well under way when the recession hit. Greenville was one of the rare downtowns where cranes and construction crews worked right through the economy's darkest days.
To attract developers, the city pays for green space and parking garages connected to projects. Mayor White has even been known to line up land and funding for companies. He's Greenville's chief cheerleader, but only one of seven votes on the City Council, split four to three, Republican to Democrat. Those lines don't mean much, though, says Democratic Councilwoman Gaye Sprague.
Ms. GAYE SPRAGUE (Councilwoman, Greenville): There is a fiscal conservatism that crosses party lines, so when it comes time to tighten the belt, if that's right for the citizens of Greenville, that's what we all get behind.
ROSE: Years of minimal spending made the belt-tightening in Greenville less painful than for many other cities. The region's property values never overheated, so tax revenues have remained stable. Schools and social services are the county's responsibility to fund. And since South Carolina is a right-to-work state, Greenville's public employees don't bargain collectively for pay and pension.
The city delayed some purchases, froze salaries for two years, but had no major layoffs. Just 32 of about 900 positions were eliminated, including attendants in the city's downtown parking garages.
Mechanical Voice: Please insert your parking ticket.
Mayor WHITE: We definitely established some strong fundamentals in place before the recession. There's no doubt about that.
ROSE: And Mayor White points out those fundamentals led Standard and Poor's to upgrade Greenville's debt rating last week to the highest level possible. The rating agency cites the city's moderate debt and diverse employer base, which includes large outposts for BMW, Fluor, Michelin and GE. That's a far cry from the 1970s, when Greenville was a textile region and that industry imploded.
Strong as it is today, University of South Carolina economist Doug Woodward says Greenville is not immune to economic turmoil.
Mr. DOUG WOODWARD (University of South Carolina Economy Professor): If the national economy goes down, they're going to go down with it. There's certain things they certainly can't control.
ROSE: And, Woodward notes, the Greenville area's unemployment rate is still around 9 percent. People without technical skills or advanced degrees struggle most to find jobs.
Ms. TAWANA MORALES: My name's Tawana Morales.
ROSE: She waited with nearly 100 others for the Greenville unemployment office to open one morning last week. Morales worked for nine years at a diner.
Ms. MORALES: And the money was really good. But then the last two years I just noticed the economy was so low, and when I was used to making $150 a day and went down to 75, and I was paying $25 to go to work - gas was so high - I just couldn't do it.
ROSE: She's hoping for a job at a chicken processing plant nearby. The high-paying jobs at BMW and Michelin are out of her reach, as are the expensive restaurants downtown. But leaving Greenville hasn't crossed her mind. The job outlook is better here than in most other cities, plus none of them has a waterfall downtown.
For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose.
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