Downtown Florence Main Street in Florence, South Carolina, is one of three winners of the prestigious 2023 Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA), which recognizes communities for their excellence in comprehensive preservation-based commercial district revitalization. Sponsored by The Hartford and selected by a national jury of community preservation professionals and leaders in the fields of economic development, Downtown Florence Main Street is being recognized for developing innovative and forward-thinking approaches to creating community buy-in through representative leadership and inclusive programming.
“Downtown Florence Main Street sets a national standard for downtown revitalization rooted in community connections,” said Main Street America Interim President and CEO, Hannah White. “Their success demonstrates the power of creative approaches to engaging stakeholders, creating a strong culture of volunteerism, and fostering pathways to increased downtown housing, while also championing the preservation of historic community assets.”
At just eight blocks, downtown Florence is a jewel where locals and visitors find exceptional local dining, award-winning entertainment venues, whimsical public art, and buildings rich in architectural heritage. It has not always been the case, however, that Florence’s downtown enjoyed this reputation as a place of vibrant businesses and welcoming gathering spaces.
For decades, the area suffered from a negative public perception fueled by empty storefronts, racial divides, and a practice of demolishing neglected, yet culturally significant, buildings in favor of new construction. Efforts to address these issues began in 2002 with limited success, until the organization began implementing a community-informed revitalization plan in 2011. Through strategic initiatives to leverage dedicated volunteers, establish partnerships, and support catalytic projects, this plan has generated over 100 units of new housing, $300 million in investment, and over 90 new businesses.
One notable catalytic project consisted of working with the City to increase access to healthy foods and create economic opportunities for food, artisan, and warehouse-based businesses by establishing a new overlay district through zoning provisions. Downtown Florence Main Street worked in partnership with the City of Florence to address food access through support and development of foundational processes for the City Center Market and Kitchen—a municipal-owned commercial kitchen and market facility that supports over 20 food-based entrepreneurs and 40+ farmers market vendors. The program also worked with the City and other partners to anchor a downtown grocery store within the district to support downtown’s residential growth and eliminate a USDA food desert.
“Being selected as a winner of the 2023 Great American Main Street Award is an unbelievable honor—it’s the once in a lifetime achievement representing the boundless investment, hard work, tenacity, and vision from local investors and partners, small business owners and residents, government officials and leaders, and our statewide Main Street network over the last twenty years—and especially over the last decade,” remarked Hannah L. Davis, Main Street Program Manager at Downtown Florence Main Street. “Once described as too far gone to be saved, Downtown Florence has become the place to be, to live, and to do business in our region, and we aren’t done yet!”
The organization is also proud of its ongoing efforts to bridge both physical and metaphorical divides through meaningful conversation and intentional action. In 2019, a data-backed and strategic approach to ensure that the board of directors mirrors the community yielded this desired effect. The newly installed North Dargan Street Mural is the latest in the organization’s efforts to honor the legacy of Black entrepreneurship, enhance the downtown’s African American Historic Business District, and foster community trust.
“Florence winning GAMSA is a tremendous achievement. The Downtown Florence Main Street team models exemplary revitalization with strong partnerships, visible transformation, and a commitment to historic preservation,” said Jenny Boulware, State Coordinator at Main Street South Carolina. “Downtown Florence has brought a new level of respect and awareness to the power of the Main Street Approach across South Carolina and throughout our southern region. We are excited to celebrate this prestigious win – and how fitting for it to be awarded during the state Main Street network’s fortieth year.”