West End's Women-Powered Revival
There are two versions of the story, and Mayor Knox White’s is the more colorful.
It happened in 2000 when White went to a ribbon cutting ceremony at the Spa at West End. Stacy Coulter had recently opened her business on what was then Pendleton Street and the ribbon cutting was supposed to part of a resurgence of the area that, in many people’s minds, was marked by vagrants, prostitutes and rundown buildings.
“So I was there and a little crowd of people was there and just as I got ready to cut her ribbon, a totally inebriated man fell through the ribbon,” White recalls.
Coulter’s version has the drunk sliding down the wall clutching a bottle. But both agree that it was an inauspicious beginning to Coulter’s entrepreneurial career. “I thought to myself, ‘What have I done?’” Coulter says.
Flash forward 12 years and those days seem a mirage. West End has come into its own. The liquor store that served the drunk is gone. In fact, most of what had been there is gone, with the exception of the Army Navy store. In their places are shops, boutiques and restaurants.
Two things stand out:
- The shops and restaurants are mostly locally owned, or, like the Breakwater Restaurant that started in Beaufort, the Greenville outpost of a locally owned business in another city.
- Almost all of the retail establishments are owned and operated by women.
Coulter says the female nature of the retail wasn’t planned or even specifically encouraged. But she says having a lot of women business owners is a plus in that they bonded in a way that is good for everyone. “We help each other out, we get together and discuss our common problems and look out for each other,” she says.
The lineup of women-controlled businesses includes Solo, Parker, Mary’s Cottage Cuisine, Plaza Suite, The Emporium, Kudzu, Cook’s Station, Monkees, Augusta Twenty, Postcards From Paris, Twigs and Pedal Chic. Go Fish and West End Coffee Co. are husband-wife teams. And there may be more – nobody seems to keep track.
Some of the stores are survivors from the earlier era. Others are recent additions, attracted by what has been happening on the south side of Reedy River.
Kelly Colacioppo started Cook’s Station in as an offshoot of her family’s restaurant supply business. She thought there might be a niche in selling high-end kitchen appliances to home-owners and interior designers. Her father wasn’t interested in that market, but encouraged her to try it on her own. She cleaned up two rooms in their warehouse and opened her doors in 1996. “It was just me and the Army-Navy store. I can remember doing cooking classes and calling the police to come and let me out.” The Emporium and Kudzu were next to arrive, and are still going strong.
Coulter was attracted to the area because of her experience in Charleston. King Street, now a shopping mecca, was once rundown and in ill repute. Coulter moved to Greenville in 1994 and later began thinking about opening a day spa. She thought, rightfully so, she was getting in on the ground floor of a reviving area, when the rents were still comparatively cheap.
“The West End caught my eye,” she recalls. “The old buildings, the neighborhood, it was a lot like Charleston had been before the rejuvenation down there.” Despite the upscale nature of her business, Coulter had to battle her surroundings to get clients. She had to assure them they would be safe, that their cars would be fine and most of all, that the trip to The Spa at West End was worth it.
The success of the efforts by Colacioppo and Coulter is evident today not only by the number and variety of establishments in the area, but by the fact that it is now the hot place to open a business.
Robin Bylenga is a creature of the corporate world. When she got laid off for the first time, she went to work in a bicycle shop and enjoyed it. A return to the corporate world was again met with a layoff, and this time Bylenga decided that working for herself would be more satisfying and more stable. She thought back to her days in the bike shop, and the dream was born, but with a twist: she would open a bike shop for women.
“All bike shops look the same. They have thousands of dollars worth of bikes, a little clothing, and they are all staffed by men. I wanted to change that.” With a business model in her mind, she set out looking for a location. “I have always wanted to own a shop on Main Street. But the rents were awfully high,” she says.
So she haunted the West End, peppering the existing shop owners about their experiences, their challenges and what it took to be a success in West End. When a small area at the back of an office building opened up, she took it. She did all the upfit herself, making it attractive to her target audience. She carries a much larger inventory of clothing and accessories than most bike shops, and emphasizes all athletics, not just biking. But it is still a bike shop, with a fulltime mechanic and lines of high-quality bikes for sale and rent. A patio outside lends itself to the kind of community events she uses to promote her business, such as evening bike rides followed by a wine tasting, which she calls “Spin and Sip.”
Claire Cox is another newcomer who sought out the West End for the boutique clothing company she runs with her two daughters, Samantha and Courtney. She originally had opened Cocobella in a shopping plaza on Pelham Road. Then, through a series of seemingly unrelated events, she had the opportunity to move to West End. The owner of Pearce and Parker became ill, and her husband mentioned one day he wanted to find someone who would take over the lease and buy the inventory. A friend of Cox’s heard about it and mentioned it to her. While Cocobella was successful in the two and one-half years it was on Pelham Road, she saw the opportunity to move to a place where there was more foot traffic. So she took over the Pearce and Parker space, integrated its inventory into hers and for a while ran two shops. The immediate success of the West End location convinced her to consolidate her efforts there.
“When we were on Pelham Road, customers had to drive there with the specific purpose in mind of going to one of the businesses there. Nobody just came by. But here, we get people coming in all the time who notice our shop and stop by. On Friday and Saturday, half of our business is coming from people who are just walking by.”
While the individual entrepreneurial spirit has had a lot to do with the revival of West End, it also benefitted from a large helping of government and development activity. The biggest catalyst, of course, was the elimination of the bridge that blocked the falls on Reedy River, and the creation of a park there. Before that, though, was the building of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The two projects bookended that part of the old downtown, and development filled in between them.
And White credits another woman – Ann Bible – of being influential in West End’s revival. Bible bought the landmark Poinsett Hotel and held onto it despite entreaties from developers who wanted to tear it down. When she turned it over to the Westin folks, they refurbished it to its original glory and it now has the highest occupancy rate in town.
“Building the park was a tough sell. We had to convince people it was a good idea to remove the bridge and spend $13 million on a park at a waterfall they have never seen,” White says.
But luck was White’s side. The head of the state transportation board, which owned the bridge, was big on gardens and saw the potential that was hidden by the bridge, and worked to get it torn down. The effects, of course, are obvious, with over $100 million in new investment linked directly to Falls Park. But even as Main Street flourished, the West End lagged. The city tried to help, giving it an historic designation and a special taxing district to generate money for public improvements. It opened a retail area called West End Market, which was a good idea that didn’t work as hoped, with businesses opening and then closing due to lack of traffic.
Coulter and others thought one of the barriers was the name of the street, which changed from Main Street to Pendleton Street at the point where Augusta Street split off. After a local lobbying effort, the city agreed to change the name to Main Street up to the intersection of Vardry Street. “We thought the Baptist church would object, since it is named Pendleton Street Baptist Church, but they were fine with the change,” Coulter says.
West End’s big break came about by what looked like a civic failure. The Greenville Braves demanded a new stadium at a cost of $25 million to $30 million. When the city refused, the team was moved to Pearl, MS, and Greenville was without a team.
All along, White had insisted that the stadium should be moved from its location on Mauldin Road near I-85 to a downtown location. That idea was not without controversy. “People said if we put a stadium in West End, the only people who would attend the games would be prostitutes, since that was the reputation the area had.”
And then along came a group of investors who thought a West End stadium would be just the place to put their Single A baseball team and agreed to spend $19 million on a baseball field with mixed use development surrounding it. Fluor Field now serves as a counterpoint anchor to the Hyatt, with Falls Park in the middle. In addition to the Greenville Drive home games, Clemson also plays at Fluor Field and the pre- and post-game crowds fill restaurants and bars.
While West End has come into its own, there are still challenges. There are empty buildings and vacant lots waiting for an uptick in the economy. And there is the psychological barrier of the bridge over Reedy River. “We still have a problem of people stopping at the Falls and not coming the extra half-block,” Bylenga says. “Getting people to cross the bridge is a challenge,” echoes Coulter. She and others want the city to provide more signage at the bridge, reminding people that Main Street continues on up the hill with more shopping, restaurants and entertainment.
Mayor White agrees, but he has his eye on a bigger project: Expanding West End up Reedy River, beyond the Kroc Center, with another big park and more development. The city owns much of the land along Mayberry Street out to Willard Street. Some the land is vacant and part of it is used as the city vehicle maintenance area. Much of it is in the flood plain, which is where White envisions the park. The higher ground, along the railroad tracks, he targets for development. And his tenant of choice is USC Upstate, which has begun exploring a move into downtown Greenville.
Knox is pushing for mixed use buildings along Mayberry, with the university either developing the land itself, or leasing space from other developers. Nothing is official yet, although Knox says a location has been found to move the maintenance yard and the university has said it might be interested if the deal was favorable. Knox envisions an investment of about $18 million, money he says will be well spent since it will attract private investment. He likes to say the city provides the “personality” for the areas – streetscaping, public art, statues. Private investment provides the rest.
If all that happens, Knox will have realized his vision for the city that he brought with him when he took office 16 years ago. “The river didn’t exist, the falls didn’t exist, West End was an idea only,” he says. “And look at it now.”