Archived Story

If Great Falls, SC can, so can we

Published 8:17pm Monday, April 25, 2011

“I want to tell you the story about this teeny-tiny place called Great Falls, South Carolina with a population of probably less than two or three thousand.”

That’s a quote from community revitalization architect Randy Wilson, who spoke in Alexander City last week at the quarterly meeting of the MainStreet Alabama Board and MainStreet programs from across the state.

Wilson has worked with many cities on ways to improve the local economy using design, and gave several examples of past and current projects in his speech.

I didn’t have a chance to really indulge on these examples in the article I wrote on Wilson’s visit last week for sake of space, but I’d like to share his story about Great Falls with you today.

Great Falls sits equal distance between Charlotte, NC and Columbia, SC – two metropolitan areas that combined have roughly 2 million people. It’s on I-77 about 10 miles off the interstate and was formerly host to three cotton mills.

According to its Wikipedia page, Great Falls was “a real boomtown in the early 1900s, the trade route of its time.”

But the mills closed, and Great Falls was great no more.

“This place was bordering on a ghost town,” Wilson said. “And they struggled because the chances of recruiting your traditional, industrial-based economic development engines were slim to none. So what are we going to build an economy around this place in a post-textile South?”

Here’s what. Wilson said that his team noted the breath-taking rivers and mountains around Great Falls and started working on a plan to get Great Falls out of its rut.

The conducted an archeological study around the river’s dam and a nearby island named Deer Park Island.

“In the re-licensing, the beauty of having the dam there is that nobody developed anything on the island, so it sat undisturbed for almost 200 years,” he said. “The site was commissioned as an inter-coastal defense by George Washington. The site was surveyed by no one other than Eli Whitney, and it was actually constructed under Thomas Jefferson’s administration. This place reeks of history.”

In the next few years, Deer Park Island will be converted into a state park. But they didn’t stop with the area’s history. They wanted something new and exciting to attract people to the area that would position Great Fall’s future.

“We bargained or negotiated for monthly water releases at certain levels,” Wilson said. “We appealed to the American White Water Association to come down and run test trials at different levels because they are looking for another place to conduct their national trials. So the result is this – all the kayakers from a three-state region are drooling to get on this because it has sat in native habitat, inaccessible.”

Great Falls is now renovating and rehabbing its streetscape, design and signs to market its new brand and identity, Wilson said.

“This little teeny-tiny town is like the little engine that could,” he said. “They’re turning themselves around and pulling themselves up by the bootstraps because they recognize those textile mills are not coming back, so they’re trying to take their future into their own hands.”

Why tell this story, you may ask? Because like Great Falls, Alex City was formerly a booming textile town, but now must search for a fresh identity that will appeal to new people and industries who can develop the economy.

Great Falls is an inspiration. We may not have their assets, but we need to figure out what unique assets we do have.

MainStreet and city officials are in the beginning stages of working to identify those assets and create a branding and marketing plan that will, hopefully, breathe new life into Alex City.

I wish them the best of luck in doing so.

If Great Falls can do it, I think Alex City can too.

Natalie Nettles is a staff writer for The Outlook.

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