“We gave away our downtown about 30 years ago when everyone moved to the mall. Like a lot of towns, we thought we could revive it by turning it into a pedestrian mall. That didn’t work and so we tried to turn it back into just a regular downtown but by then we’d run everyone away.” Kent Mims, Sumter’s Commercial Development Coordinator, told me as he toured me through the downtown area.
Today, the downtown is like a lot of downtowns that I see. It is down on its luck with too many vacancies, empty buildings and some very unusual shops or as Kent asked me, “How many wig stores do we need downtown?”
But, there are some real gems in Sumter’s downtown; redevelopment is starting with a flourish and most importantly most of the old buildings are still there. Or, as I told them, “You’ve still got all of your teeth! How would it look if I stood up in front of you with two or three teeth missing? You’d wonder what was the matter with me, right? Well, it’s the same with a downtown when you’ve got buildings missing because they’ve fallen down or burned and been turned into parking lots.”
Fortunately virtually all of Sumter’s downtown buildings are still there and starting to come back to life. The city renovated the old opera house into city hall and still holds concerts there. Carolina Technical College is in the process of taking one of the first big box retail projects that has been vacant for a number of years and turning it into a health specialty college, primarily aimed at nursing students. The town’s hospital, Tuomey Healthcare System, anchors the other end of downtown and having nursing students walking from the college to the hospital will put a new vibrancy into the downtown on a daily basis.
Three new buildings have been built recently, not to look like they were built in the 2000s but like they’ve been there for over 100 years. Those new buildings are helping to fill in the few “missing teeth” that every downtown seems to have.
And, Greg Thompson of Thompson Construction Group, a local entrepreneur with 750 employees has completely renovated the 1907 Montgomery Ward store (33,000 sf) into a corporate headquarters and retail shopping area. He has plans to open a new café/bakery and develop a boutique hotel in adjacent property.
After having seen hundreds and hundreds of downtowns in the past couple of years, it was safe for me to tell the Sumter retreat, “That they’ve got the potential to turn their downtown into one of the top five or ten downtowns in the USA.”
They’re on the right track with their plans and I hope to return in a couple of years to see the progress.