BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
A combination of strong identity, motivation, perseverance, and creative ways to seek out "energy" has Bristol's downtown packed every weekend -- a sharp contrast to Greeneville's downtown on most Saturdays.
The Town of Greeneville's Vision 20/20 "Downtown Revitalization" action group heard this description of Bristol on Tuesday during a presentation from Mike Sparks and Jean Burnette, of the "Believe in Bristol" campaign.
Sparks is a member of the city government while Burnette is chairman of the Main Street: Bristol program, that community's counterpart of Main Street: Greeneville.
Both Sparks and Burnette explained how they participated in steps taken to revitalize downtown Bristol. They also took questions during the session, which was held in the G. Thomas Love Boardroom at the Greeneville Light & Power System offices.
"Their downtown is thriving, and that's what we want to happen to Greeneville," said Andy Daniels, who is leading the action group.
Daniels, a downtown property-owner, is also the president of Main Street: Greeneville and the wife of Mayor W.T. Daniels.
In attendance on Tuesday were many downtown merchants, business-owners, Greeneville property-owners, and a dozen Greeneville Middle School students who came on the direct invitation of GMS teacher Aaron Bible.
Bible said the students have expressed a direct interest in urban development, and he emphasized that there is a need to include young people in revitalization plans.
Sparks began the discussion by noting the advantages Greeneville will have in beginning its revitalization project, including a unified government to oversee the area, an historical downtown, and the beauty of the area.
He also praised the town for the recent addition of Todd Smith as City Administrator.
"He brings a wealth of knowledge," Sparks noted. "He's a resource that, obviously, you're going to use a lot."
NOT ALL GOVERNMENT
Sparks focused his address on the need for teamwork among the Town government, merchants, property-owners and all other interested parties.
He also emphasized that the Town government should not play the largest role in that teamwork.
"The city had a role [in revitalizing Bristol's downtown], but it was only a partial role," he explained. "It's got to be a team effort."
Sparks also noted that the city did very little to incentivize downtown growth.
The City of Bristol did, however, assist with some aspects of the project, including offering grant funding at times, purchasing one of the major downtown buildings and selling it at no profit, and aiding the process for locating two of the major downtown restaurants.
He also noted that the city encouraged business development through a Business Resource Center that counsels those interested in becoming an entrepreneur.
A group of six banks also partnered to help those interested in startups downtown, he said.
'FIND A NICHE'
Sparks encouraged all parties to find a central theme for the area that both would be of interest to the people here and would also draw in others.
"You've got to find something that you're interested in in this area," he said.
"We kind of floundered around for a little bit until we found our niche," Burnette later agreed.
For Bristol, that niche was music. Bristol, Sparks said, is known as "the birthplace of country music."
Using this theme, the city hosts numerous concerts and festivals throughout the summer to draw citizens downtown and to draw tourists downtown.
These events include "Border Bash" and "Rhythm in Roots."
BENEFIT OF YOUNG PEOPLE
Burnette focused much of her discussion on the hard work and many years that it took to build up Bristol's downtown area.
"Downtown is the heart of the city," Burnette said. "If the heart is not alive, the city is not alive."
She emphasized the benefit of having "young people" purchase buildings, allowing restaurants with music and bars to create night life, and having shops that are open late to benefit from the business and create that special atmosphere.
During festivals, the city approves special permits for beer gardens (gated areas where restaurants or organizations can sell alcohol), but does not allow alcohol on the streets, thus maintaining what she said is a family-friendly atmosphere.
ACTIVITY AND DIVERSITY
This brings energy, activity and diversity to the area, she said.
Moreover, many young people live in lofts and apartments downtown, and one of the many popular programs of the year is a loft tour, she said.
In the 1990s, Bristol's downtown was more than half-empty, with a few shops such as a bookstore, an art gallery, a theater, a jewelry store and an antique mall.
Restoration of the theater and the train station downtown, as well as building a new library, increased interest in the area, she said.
Today, Bristol has many small specialty shops, 18 restaurants, and special areas of interest such as an arts and entertainment center.
Downtown revitalization is one of several key strategies pinpointed by the Greeneville Board of Mayor and Aldermen in 2012 as a part of the town's new 20/20 Vision program, which was designed to "realize Greeneville's potential," according to information provided by the Town.
The "Downtown Revitalization" action group is tasked with four goals:
* enhance retail, residential, and entrepreneurial opportunities downtown;
* support the Walters State Community College expansion project downtown;
* identify events that bring customers downtown on a periodic basis; and
* develop long-range land-use plans maximizing the business, residential, and educational potential downtown.