Member Commentary: Brewton, AL vs. Greenville, SC

As part of this year's Strongest Town Contest, we've invited Strong Towns members and activists to provide guest commentary on each of the towns in our first round based on Strong Towns principles. While these commentators have not had the chance to visit each town themselves, they read the town's application to the contest, as well as conducted additional background research on the community.

Today, we've got two commentaries on the contest's next match-up: Brewton, AL vs. Greenville, SC. Visit this page to see each town's submission, then read on below to hear a Strong Towns member perspective on these communities. Contest voting closes at 12pm CT on Friday, March 9.

Strong Towns member Bill

Strong Towns member Bill

Brewton, Alabama

Commentary by Bill Talkington, a Strong Towns member from Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

Land Use and Transportation

Brewton enjoys a number of small and large public parks that are close to its neighborhoods. Growth of retail centers are regulated by their zoning board, but more work should be done to encourage traditional, incremental development, especially in the historic (and artistic!) downtown that has several beautiful examples on and near St. Joseph Avenue. The current footprint of Brewton would be relatively easy to navigate by foot or bicycle, and there is a significant amount of space for infill developments. For example, too much space is currently devoted to parking lots, and typical lot sizes (residential and commercial) are somewhat large. More intense development would help continue Brewton’s focus on financial solvency and productivity, especially with respect to infrastructure costs.

Brewton has been aggressively adding sidewalks and walking trails alongside extensive repaving projects. Currently, it seems to be a fairly car-dependent place. However, biking infrastructure is planned and could do wonders in a town of its size with minimal investment. Incremental steps to building a comprehensive biking network should be considered with the current resurfacing projects.

Citizen Involvement

It is very apparent that the citizens of Brewton care deeply for their home, showing up in times of celebration and hardship alike. Festivals, porch concerts, theatrical performances, community clean-ups, and other efforts cannot happen without a dedicated group of engaged citizens. Citizens also show their dedication by actively contributing to the discussions surrounding planning and development in their community.

The city of Brewton is doing well to engage its citizens in determining its future through the use of online and in-person meetings, initiatives, and events. A great example of connecting citizens to government is the Brewton Reborn Facebook page, which is regularly updated with current  information.

Economic Strength

Brewton has been working towards building a more firm financial footing through several measures (i.e. doing the math!): restoring depleted financial reserves and refinancing current debt obligations, eliminating unnecessary expenditures, and most importantly, focusing on the financial returns from current and future expenditures. 

Brewton’s economy has historically relied upon lumber and forest products. Thankfully, recent investments by their flagship employers in this industry and others suggest a sustained presence in the community. These large employers are additionally supported by ancillary industries that help support their missions.

A strong town, one that is resilient in changing economies and market pressures, cannot rely solely on a few key employers. Building upon its healthy economic past and present, Brewton has begun expanding the diversity of its economic footprint with the addition of two large employers in more tech-oriented and other emerging industries. Brewton should be very proud of its current economic situation, while continuing to work towards an increasingly diverse and resilient economic base.

Strong Towns member Alexander

Strong Towns member Alexander

Greenville, South Carolina

Commentary by Alexander Dukes, a Strong Towns member from Mount Holly, New Jersey.

Land Use and Transportation

Greenville makes better use of its land resources than most American cities; however, a little less than half of its downtown is covered in parking lots that limit productivity in the area.  The Main Street area of Downtown Greenville is very picturesque and beautiful. Almost everything along Main Street is very productive. Church Street and Academy Street (essentially the east and west bounds of the downtown) are stroads. This is likely due to the fact they are state highways. Greenville should work to remedy these streets. It is along these thoroughfares that downtown Greenville ends and suburban Greenville begins.

Typical of most American cities, much of the land outside of downtown is either consumed by single family homes or commercial or industrial areas sited along arterial corridors. Fortunately, upon closer inspection the single-family areas close to downtown do have some good multifamily mixed in. All of the areas that are “suburban” in nature also feature an interconnected street network, which will help secure their long term resilience.

As its submission states, there are a number of picturesque portions of downtown Greenville, particularly Falls Park on the Reedy River and Main Street. More mixed-use development around these areas (perhaps in-filling some parking lots) should add greatly to the downtown’s productivity- people tend to appreciate living near assets like parks and beautiful streets. Unfortunately, federal regulations hamper this a bit.

Yes, Greenville has a robust bus system (called “Greenlink”) and a free trolley system for the downtown area. The Greenlink bus system circulates each route once every hour. While hour long waits aren’t perfect, the Greenlink system has a total of 16 routes, which serve every region of the city. Greenlink has an attractive, easy to access, and informative website as well. Busses run from at least 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

The Greenlink system includes the trolley, which runs through the core of the downtown area (and even a little bit outside of it). The trolley runs from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturdays, and 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays. The trolley system seems like a great way to generate interest and provide non-car transportation convenience for downtown patrons. Businesses seem to appreciate the trolley. According to its submission, downtown Greenville maintains more than 100 restaurants within a half mile radius of downtown. For a city of its size, Greenville punches above its weight with respect to public transportation. 

Citizen Involvement

According to its submission Greenville has maintained great interest in enhancing its downtown since 1968, when a downtown development plan was commissioned. This plan widened sidewalks to 18 feet, added street trees, reduced auto lanes from four to two, and allocated space for outdoor dining. All of these improvements were implemented by 1981 — only 13 years after the plan was commissioned. The Greenville Central Area Partnership built on these improvements starting in 1989. Since then, citizens have led many improvements to the downtown area.

The submission also mentions that there is a deep food, brewing, and gardening culture in Greenville.  Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be much of the downtown that features an empty storefront. Citizens primary means of engagement with their city’s downtown seems to be to run and patronize businesses in the area. The street-views of Greenville are beautiful and filled with activity. Though there are some “missing teeth” with parking lots in the downtown, more than half of the area features attractive commercial, office, or residential frontages.

The submission states that the government has worked directly with citizens and citizen groups for over 50 years to improve downtown Greenville. The submission also states that in the fall of 2017, the Greenlink bus system consulted citizens through 16 public hearings to improve transportation. A Transportation Development Plan was also furnished from these hearings, which will guide development of the system through 2024.

There are also a collection of restaurants in the area (including Farm Fresh Fast and Swamp Rabbit Café) serving farm to plate food from over 248 farms in the region. Farm Fresh Fast expanded its operation to create the first children’s farm to table restaurant, and supplies local families with affordable, fresh, and local meals that can feed them for weeks at a time. A number of local breweries serve as gathering places for residents as well.

As stated previously. Greenville’s residents seem to think the best way to affect change in their community is to engage through innovative retail establishments.

Economic Strength

Frankly, Greenville’s submission doesn’t seem to speak much to this topic (citing much “business improvement district” (BID) and “tax increment financing” (TIF) type borrowing and state investment). Greenville’s 2018 operating budget states that the General Fund beginning balance is about $22.9 million dollars from the previous year. The projected ending balance for the General Fund is about $21.2 million dollars. Therefore, the current budget projects a deficit for the General Fund of $1.6 million dollars. The largest expenditures in the General Fund are the police and fire departments, whose expenditures are $22.6 million and $14.4 million dollars, respectively.

Greenville’s total operating budget expenditures (including the General Fund and other funds) for 2018 are expected to be $184.3 million while total revenues collected are expected to be $185.4 million. That means the fund’s “balance” (surplus?) is expected to be about $1 million dollars.
Greenville spends about 38 percent of the “Capital Improvement Plan” portion of its budget on “infrastructure.” 30 percent of the budget goes to Parks and Rec., 24 percent to Economic Development, 5 percent on Public Safety, and 3 percent on general government. The capital improvement portion of the budget comprises 19 million dollars of the total budget. The capital improvement plan is funded by a variety of revenue sources, but the majority of its $19 million dollars (39%, or $7.5 million dollars) comes from the General Fund.

The budget of the Public Works Department, whose mission is to manage the environment and infrastructure of the Greenville, has $9.9 million dollars of expenditures. I assume this is combined with the Capital Improvement Plan to maintain the city’s various infrastructures.

General Debt Service has a principal of only $1.7 million dollars. Debt service makes up only 0.03 percent of the General Fund expenditures.

From a cursory review of the city’s budget, Greenville seems financially strong. Moody’s and S&P have given Greenville a AAA rating, so they seem to agree. Debt seems to be low as well. Greenville can be forgiven for using TIFs and BIDs when our system pretty much requires cities using this type of financing to fund projects. It appears to have used these funding tools conservatively and wisely. Greenville is financially healthy and solvent.

Despite a number of wasteful parking lots, downtown Greenville seems to be very healthy and lively economically. The transportation system is robust for a city of this size. The city’s budget is very sound. Infrastructure from visual inspection (through Google Street View) seems to be in good condition. Despite some issues with land use and stroady street design issues outside of the immediate main street area (that can be corrected with relative ease), Greenville seems to be a Strong Town.

Voting is now closed.