Developer floats learning center idea for Town Common —

A developer’s suggestion that the Town Common would be a great site for a science learning center raised interest during the Greenville City Council’s annual planning session but also raised concern over how it would mesh with other plans for the park.

Tim Elliott, director of the Sidewalk Development project, broached the discussion of a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math center on Saturday during the second day of the retreat, an annual session during which the council discusses a range of topics including possible “big idea” developments.

Elliot and others suggested the STEAM learning center could give the city an iconic drawing card it’s needed for the park, even showing off schematics of a building shaped like a pirate ship dominating the center of the common.

“Greenville is definitely on the rise ... but it is not a destination yet,” said Elliott, whose $32 million residential-commercial complex is underway at Dickinson Avenue and Reade Circle. “The city needs something that will take it to the next level.”

Elliot said whenever he talks about working in Greenville, people usually assume he is talking about Greenville, S.C. “I’m sure everyone here is used to that ... being that other Greenville,” Elliott said. “And Greenville, S.C., has a smaller population and doesn’t have a university.

”During the last few years in Greenville there has been a parking deck built, a number of Dickinson Avenue Corridor projects, new housing developments, construction on the GTAC is underway, the 10th Street Connector in under construction, the city has developed a Town Common Master Plan and there is a new playground out there,” he said. “There is so much going on ... this should be the Greenville that people think of first.”

Jim Blount, a local partner in the Sidewalk Development project, said the project could help attract and retain more professionals in Greenville.

“It’s a quality of life issue ... a large number of executives that work in Greenville commute here from Raleigh,” Blount said. “We have to have something that not only will keep young professionals in the area, but keep our high-level executives here as well.”

Elliott said he envisioned the STEAM center would operate as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with private backing. He said it would provide a “catalyst” for downtown development.

“I’ve seen areas completely transformed during my career,” he said. “It all starts with one project that gets things going ... this is the catalyst concept.”

As the value of surrounding property rises, a demand for office and residential space is created, he said. Office and housing developments in the area will create a demand for more retail and restaurants, which will continue to raise property values.

“That growth will continue to spread to other parts of the city as well,” Elliott said.

Veronica Franco, founder of STEM Futures, an Orlando, Fla.-based consultant on STEM programs in public school districts, said the learning center could include a theater and interactive spaces. “Facilities like this are a regional draw for families and kids,” Franco said. “They are so much more immersive and provide a more hands-on experience.”

Elliot said that East Carolina University also expressed interest in potentially partnering with the city for the project.

“ECU is interested in possibly using the facility as a performing arts center,” Elliott said. “There is a lot of things this facility could be used for and a lot of opportunity for public-private partnerships.”

Elliott said that the next step would be to form a steering committee with representatives from the city, ECU and the private sector. The committee would then commission a feasibility study and cost analysis of the project.

“I’m not suggesting anything other than we all take a look at the possibilities,” Elliott said.

“This is really exciting stuff,” Mayor Allen Thomas said. “We are always talking about a catalyst to drive tourism in Greenville and I think this is worth looking at at the very least.”

Councilman At-large Calvin Mercer said he was not against the idea, but was not sure the Town Common was the right location for a facility like this.

“I am, in principle, open to exploring any new idea that will strengthen our city,” Mercer said. “But before I could support any new direction on the Town Common, the project would have to get wide public exposure and input.”

Mercer said that the idea outside of work included the Town Common Master Plan, which was adopted by the City Council after multiple public input sessions to guide development of the park.

“The officially adopted Town Common Master Plan would need to be changed in a very public and transparent process,” Mercer said.

Mercer also questioned whether a STEAM center or performance arts center for ECU should be located in a city park.

“I've been involved in efforts with ECU to bring a large performing arts venue to Greenville ... I support that happening,” Mercer said. “The question is should some sort of performing arts center, an indoor experience, be built on Town Common parkland?”

Council members still liked the proposal enough to rank it as the No. 1 priority on a list of ideas it wants city staff to research. It ranked higher on the list than another possible development at the park: a pedestrian bridge linking the common to River Park North.