'Two years ago, (Greenville) asked me to make it happen.'
MAY 26, 2011 8:59 a.m. (0)
Nothing had higher priority than to create a destination with retail, office and public space that would serve as a catalyst for a resurgent North Main from Piazza Bergamo to the Hyatt Hotel, itself undergoing improvements.
No envisioned project held more promise. None posed more financial challenge.
“One of the smartest things we did was ask for help. Bob was asked to come in as a consultant,” said Mayor Knox White, reviewing events leading to announcement of the $100-million multi-phase construction plan for Washington Square.
The most important piece from the downtown perspective is a commitment from Anthropologie, the popular national retailer of women’s clothing, accessories and home décor to anchor the project, the kind of store White and Hughes see as attracting other retailers.
White explained in an interview that when the city began to focus on developing the plaza and Woolworth site five years ago, it talked to a number of developers who understood the challenges of developing in urban downtowns.
“The top person on our list was Bob Hughes,” he said. “Bob likes a challenge. He doesn’t do the easy projects. He was brought in as an informal advisor, and he became more than an advisor. I was never surprised that he would rise to the challenge.”
As Hughes put it, “For three years, they asked me what to do. Two years ago, they asked me to make it happen.”
“I could still screw it up, but everything is in place,” he said when asked if he was comfortable in believing the project will be completed. “If everybody does what they say they are going to do, if everybody honors the term sheets, then we are ready to go.
”I’m completely comfortable that everything is in place, but is every piece of paper signed, no. Every single piece of paper has been looked at by everybody.”
In a briefing at Hughes ‘s office, he and other key players, including White and Anne S. Ellefson, managing director of Haynsworth, Sinkler Boyd, Greenville law firm that is taking two floors of office space, talked about the project and how it came about.
“Bob has really persevered in making this happen,” said Ellefson. “I can’t think of anybody else who could pull it off.”
“I was held hostage by the city,” joked Hughes.
“What makes it more remarkable,” said White, was that Hughes won commitments for financing a multi-million dollar project “in the shadow of the Great Recession.”
In a separate conversation, White said the recession actually worked in the city’s favor. “It was a good time to do some serious planning. We can’t do the development so let’s do planning in a more thoughtful way than we could in the past when things were moving so fast.”
Because they were not very busy, developers and architects nationally recognized in urban development were willing to come to Greenville at their own expense and review the site, propose ideas and make recommendations.
White believes those “wonderful ideas and that expertise” appealed to Hughes’ commitment to urban planning and helped convince him to take on the role of developer.
Hughes’ “willingness to stick with a tough project when no one else would do it,” as White put it, is on display throughout the city with projects credited with rejuvenating Greenville’s downtown and preparing foundation for future growth in a knowledge economy.
Among them is RiverPlace, the $65-million complex of residential condos, offices, retail space, restaurants and hotel lodging at Falls Park, Bob Hughes, his brother Phil and other developers built at Falls Park.
Said White: “RiverPlace had every challenge, every obstacle that you could come up with, everything from what was underground, the sewers and utilities. Then you had the whole private/public mix with the parking garage, and getting financing when you have a private/public partnership.”
Another demonstration of Hughes’ creative approach to urban development was his recreation of an old warehouse off Church Street to an incubator for entrepreneurial knowledge businesses. Called Next, it is rapidly filling up.
The Greenville County School Board gives Hughes credit for devising a financing mechanism for the recently completed $1-billion school construction program without raising taxes and by getting around a bonding cap.
Hughes’ penchant for taking on challenges extends to Columbia where he is in the process of acquiring the Bull Street property that once was the home of the State Lunatic Asylum, a transaction currently held up as courts sort out some ownership questions.
Columbia’s The State newspaper recently reported wonderment that Hughes would “spend $15 million on 165 acres of lawsuit-plagued historically protected, politically charged property not far from the heart of Columbia’s downtown.”
“It sounds so Bob Hughes,” White told the newspaper.
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