GREENVILLE — You don’t need to look both ways when crossing Washington Avenue downtown.

Cars occasionally cruise down its four lanes like they have nowhere to go. And maybe they don’t. Some storefronts have been vacant for more than 20 years.

It’s hardly an obvious location for a $9.1 million hotel. But this time next year, downtown will have one.

In January, Bill Boykin, a Greenville businessman, broke ground on The Lofts at 517, a historic renovation project in downtown’s long-abandoned Sears building. Plans include 16 hotel suites, 12 condominiums, a retail space, a craft brewery and a restaurant.

Combine this with the recently announced $46 million grant to build a new federal courthouse, and residents say they feeling optimistic about downtown for the first time in decades.

“Right now, more than ever, people are seeing the possibility and the opportunity, whereas five, 10 years ago, that didn’t exist,” said Will Coppage, project manager at the Washington County Economic Alliance. “And that’s the key. For everybody, whether it’s downtown or in another part of Greenville, it’s seeing the possibilities and then not being afraid to go out and take a chance on Greenville.”

But in Greenville, which like much of the Delta has lost a quarter of its population since the 1990s, the economy can’t run on optimism. It runs on money. And some economists question whether the town has enough to support a project as large as the The Lofts at 517.

“In Greenville, you’ve gotta look and say ‘where is the disposable income base that will drive this?’” asked Pete Walley, director of long range economic development planning for the state. “It’s admirable that they’re doing it, but the bottom line is that in our economy we’re looking for businesses to make a profit. And if they don’t, they shut the doors, and they go somewhere else.”

Greenville’s late mayor Chuck Jordan planted the seed for Boykin’s project when he took office in 2012 with the belief that the community needed a strong downtown core to succeed. Other nearby Mississippi towns like Greenwood and Water Valley had pumped money into their downtowns — and real estate prices soared.

“There’s immeasurable impact that often results from a city trying to revitalize its downtown core,” Walley said. “If you can get it going you have a whole bunch of solid positives that come out of it.”

Boykin spent three and a half years putting together the funding to redo the Sears building, a combination of his own investment and historic and new market tax credits. And while he acknowledges the risk that comes with putting so much of his own money on the line in an unproven neighborhood, Boykin said he’s confident Greenville can support it.

“I wouldn’t be doing it if not. I’m a gambler to a degree. But I’m a very calculated gambler,” Boykin said. “And it’s gonna work. I know it’ll work. It’s gonna bring something to this community that we’ve not had, we’re not used to having, and then we just have to hope the community will believe in it once it’s all done.”

The Lofts at 517, named in reference to its street number, is certainly not something Greenville is used to having. The entire building feels high-end, with spaces for an upscale restaurant, a boutique and a craft brewery. The second and third floors are home to 28 suites, 12 of which will rent as condos, with the remainder going toward hotel rooms.

Standing in a unit, with its exposed brick walls and loft ceilings, it’s easy to imagine you’re in Soho or downtown Los Angeles. Until you look out of a window.

While the Sears building gets its facelift, complete with the original marble from the building’s 1940s exterior, its once-grand neighbors across Washington Avenue decay. Rotting boards cover the windows of the Elk Lodge, and vines snake up its columns. The brick building next door to it still carries the sign for the “Greenville Buick-Pontiac Co.,” although it hasn’t sold a car in decades.

Greenville’s mayor waves away concerns that the surrounding blight will scare off potential customers. Since Main Street Greenville, a local nonprofit, began cleaning up the downtown storefronts a few years ago, he said, the area has become an evening destination for people who want a safe place to walk or jog.

“How do (businesses) make money? You gotta have traffic. Well more and more we have that traffic,” Coppage said.

From the beginning the Lofts at 517 were intended to be an “anchor” to draw people and, eventually, other businesses to downtown. And to an extent, this plan has worked.

According to Mal Kretchmar, who has been a commercial real estate agent in Greenville for 51 years, seven buildings have sold downtown since Boykin broke ground in January.

“It’s been a situation of years and years where nothing has sold, and now we’ve got a situation where buildings are beginning to sell at soft prices. But the important thing is they’re being sold. Old buildings are being renovated and recycled,” Kretchmar said.

No one expects dramatic change overnight, according to Cary Karlson, executive director of the Washington County Economic Alliance. But for the first time in a while, he said people are optimistic that change will occur.

“With the direction we’re going now … and with all the activity going downtown, I just can’t see how that’s going to slow down,” Karlson said. “I’m very confident. I won’t see all of it in my tenure. But I think we’re pointed in the right direction.”

Although the new federal courthouse was just announced in December, every conversation about revitalizing downtown eventually comes back to that project — and its $46 million price tag.

Benjy Nelken, who runs the Greenville History Museum on Washington Avenue, said the announcement of the new courthouse alone had “generated interest and activity in the neighborhood.”

Boykin called the plans for the new courthouse a “huge economic boost.”

Simmons said the courthouse project “raises the level of excitement” about downtown and predicted that its state-of-the-art technology would be a “draw” for lawyers and judges.

The real draw, however, is likely to be the increased security.

Last year, the United States Marshall Service rated the security at Greenville’s current federal courthouse, built in 1958, a 14 out of 100, making it one of the least secure in the country. As a result, almost all of Greenville’s criminal cases are being rerouted to Oxford’s federal courthouse.

When the new courthouse is finished, those cases will return, along with the lawyers, judges, witnesses and spectators attached to them.

But that’s a long ways off. Local officials haven’t even announced where in downtown the building will be constructed. Earliest estimates target an opening date of 2019, which leaves two years before the increased business benefits Boykin’s hotel.

Despite the fact that the hotel’s one and two-bedroom suites with kitchenettes that Boykin said make them perfect for long-term renters, like lawyers working together on a trial, he said his business model doesn’t depend on the new courthouse to succeed.

“People think I’m a genius, and I’d like to say I’m a genius, but none of us knew nothing of it,” Boykin said. “I’ve been working on this project for five years.

In the meantime, there is the power of symbolism — and a $46 million dollar project is a much-needed sign of improvement in a neighborhood where selling half a dozen businesses in a year is cause for celebration.

“The Greenville residents do not realize how fortunate we are to get a project like that in Greenvillle,” Boykin said. “A $46 million building, to be built in your downtown business area, no one else in the state of Mississippi is getting anything like that. That’s a huge amount of capital. It’s huge.”

It’s been a while since Greenville got something no one else in Mississippi has. Long the largest city in the Delta, its prime location on the river and well-educated population once made it the area’s cultural and economic hub. Greenville’s newspaper, under the leadership of the legendary Hodding Carter II, won a Pulitzer for its editorials advocating racial tolerance. And while the rest of the state dug in its heels, Greenville’s school district was the first to voluntarily integrate.

“When you compare it to the other towns, not only in the Delta but in Mississippi and even the Southeast, it’s been something of an oasis of tolerance,” said Nelken, who also runs the Nelken Solomon Century of History Museum, dedicated to Greenville’s Jewish past. “Of course, I’m not saying Greenville didn’t have Jim Crow or anything else, but they didn’t take it to the height of other cities in terms of intolerance and bigotry.”

But as industries, and then people, packed up and moved away, the mantle passed. Cleveland, home to Delta State University and now the Grammy Museum Mississippi, became an intellectual center. Clarksdale transformed itself into the biggest stop on the Blues Trail. And Greenwood, long seen by Greenvillians as a “tamer” sister, became a model of prosperity with a downtown fueled by money from Fred Carl’s Viking Range Corp.

“Most of these other towns have kind of used Greenville as an example to follow,” Nelken said. “But I don’t think they still do in that respect because Greenville has got a reputation now where crime is high and the schools are not good. We’ve got something of a negative rap, and that’s what we’re trying to improve on, our image.”

Which might be why, in spite of the more than $50 million in construction being pumped into downtown over the next few years, many of Greenville’s economic leaders say the hardest — and most important — part of improving the city will be convincing residents that it can happen.

“When we were growing up and ready to go to college, our parents who saw some of the industry leaving in town might have jumped to the conclusion that there’s nothing there for us,” Coppage said. “They said ‘Oh, when you graduate from college you don’t have to come back.’ And that’s one of the culprits of our decline. For an area to grow, you’ve got to re-attract the youth. So that hurt us a lot.

“So now how do we set it up to where it’s the opposite for what’s going on for our kids, where they’d want to stay here and want to come back? You have to see that there are possibilities,” he said.

Will Coppage (left) of the Washington County Economic Alliance examines the exterior of the old Sears building, which is being turned into a boutique hotel.
Will Coppage (left) of the Washington County Economic Alliance examines the exterior of the old Sears building, which is being turned into a boutique hotel. Credit: Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

Coppage saw those possibilities. After a decade and a half living out of state, he returned to Greenville with his wife a few years ago. And he said they’re part of a trend of young couples returning to Greenville with the desire to turn the city around, although at this point the evidence may be more anecdotal than empirical.

Greenville’s population hovers around 33,000. Usually a town this size would have little trouble keeping a restaurant and boutique hotel afloat, in addition to the chains that dot the highways. But nearly a third of Greenville’s population lives below the poverty line, according to a 2013 American Community Survey, which means the portion of the town’s population with money to support these businesses is much smaller.

“So the question becomes could a town like Greenville … make traffic come to it,” Walley said. “If you’re just rearranging money inside the city limits, you’re probably not doing too much, you’re just redistributing the money among the vendors down there. If you’re bringing money in from outside, then you’re bringing more money into the city.”

Simmons said they’ve anticipated this issue, and expects that people in the small towns surrounding Greenville will be just as excited about new businesses as its residents are. “If you look at the Mississippi Delta, places like Arcola, Hollandale, Leland … Greenville is their big city.”

This strategy worked in Water Valley, a picturesque town of 3,500 that supports several restaurants and a small bed and breakfast. But Water Valley is less than 20 miles from Oxford, one of Mississippi’s most prosperous communities. The towns surrounding Greenville are smaller and poorer than it is.

Greenwood’s model for success bears more of a resemblance to what Greenville is doing. But it has its problems, too.

Fred Carl started the Viking Range Corp. in downtown Greenwood, and as the company exploded in the 1990s, so did its presence in the area. Offices and manufacturing took over once empty buildings. And as the workforce there increased, other businesses and restaurants arrived to take advantage of it. The apex arrived in 2003 when Carl built the Alluvian, a four-star hotel and spa.

But when Carl sold Viking in late 2012, Middleby, the new parent company, slashed the workforce and moved the corporate offices out of state. Now fewer than 500 people work out of downtown. And some buildings are empty, once again.

“The point is, it was sustainable as long as he had a source of income to pump in there. But that’s all gone, you can look at it and see,” economist Walley said.

Still, there are signs of improvement. After a few years of contraction, the city invested in a $2.6 million park along the old railroad tracks. Main Street Greenwood is working to improve areas of the central business district that were left out of the first wave of revitalization.

If these strategies are successful, and downtown remains a vital part of Greenwood, the lesson here may be that you can’t rely on one project, no matter how well-funded, to turn around an area. Transforming even a small part of town has to be a community effort.

Boykin and others investing in downtown Greenville seem to recognize that their efforts have to be as much a labor of love as a way to turn a profit. Calvin Nolden, who grew up in Indianola and runs New Wave Investments out of Memphis, said he bought his building, 115 West Walker, because he’s always “loved the Delta” and wanted to help revitalize a part of it.

“I think it could be financially lucrative,” Nolden said. “But I think (downtown) still has some development to do.”

Coppage, who insists on the need for positive thinking even more than his boss Karlson or Bill Boykin, is still pragmatic when he discusses best-case scenarios for Greenville’s future.

“It’s never going to be this ideal thing again, where you’ve got these cute little shopfronts and this five and dime with everybody smiling and saying ‘Hey, neighbor.’ It’s not going to have this wholesome whatever, but that wholesome image was also due to some obliviousness about this world,” Coppage said. “So by saying downtown will never be what it was, it will never be this romanticized image of what it was. But it can be something new and something fresh.”

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.