West Pelzer Spreads Its Wings Thanks to Hughes Investments Elevate Upstate Grant

Last Thursday, at the Ten at the Top Celebrating Successes event, Elevate Upstate grants, made possible by Phil Hughes and Hughes Investment, were awarded to the Main Street Laurens for a food truck plaza and to Greenwood for its BeeSmart program. In addition to the grants, Hughes announced that the other three finalists—Seneca and the Blue Ridge Arts Council, the City of Landrum, and the Abbeville County Farmers Market—would receive matching funds if they raise $2000 towards their projects.

Checking In with Last Year’s Winner

In 2016, the town of West Pelzer won the grant for its Expand Your Wings program, “both an educational venture and an art installation that will allow residents, visitors and passersby to West Pelzer to ‘Become like a bird, expand your wings, learn new things and fly high as you can’,” in words taken from West Pelzer’s grant application.

Building on the town’s ordinance from the 1940s establishing the town as a bird sanctuary, the program highlights the bird connection but hits many more aspects of community vibrancy. West Pelzer mayor, Blake Sanders, grew up in West Pelzer and never heard of this ordinance until he was looking through the laws on the books for outdated ones that could be jettisoned.

The law made it illegal to remove trees that birds used as their habitat, as well as to shoot or kill a bird, and, Sanders says, this was something that could be built on. He hit upon the idea of tying it to the issue of walkability—in a small town with ADA-compliant sidewalks and streetscapes, people could walk to school, church, and stores, Sanders says, but they weren’t.

Winning the Hughes Elevate Upstate grant allowed the town to partner with Anderson School District 1 Career Center to build bird houses—and even expanded that to bat houses and hummingbird feeders to be sure all kinds of natural wildlife could be cared for—and with the Goal Post after school program to have elementary school students paint the houses.

Approaching local businesses and homeowners on Main Street, Sanders and town officials distributed the bird houses along Main Street and created a walking tour map of the bird houses and bird print markings on the sidewalks to direct those following the tour.

The map does more than point out where bird houses are located and give facts about native birds and their migratory habits—it gives the history of the town that may be unknown to younger residents. The town’s municipal center, for example, was recently moved to Main Street as part of an effort to revitalize the downtown, and the building in which it currently resides used to be a parts store. A grocery store used to sit on the site of a town park. The elementary school used to be at 100 Main Street, but after it burned down three times in a short span of time, it was rebuilt in its current location.

The tour, which is about two miles long, starts and stops at the municipal building, which has become something of a visitors center. All of the bird houses are visible from the sidewalk, and they, along with the bird stencils on the sidewalk, create a cohesive theme for the downtown area. And, as had been the goal, people are getting out and walking more.

Bird houses alone wouldn’t revitalize the downtown, though. Other things that were happening at the same time have contributed to the positive things brought about by Spread Your Wings. The partnerships with the schools, Sanders says, have brought concerns to his attention that he hadn’t been aware of, and conversations have begun about healthy living and the environment as a result of Spread Your Wings. “If I Were Mayor” sessions with local school children have contributed legitimate ideas along with their desire for an ice cream store.

When Sanders ran for mayor in 2015, he says, “I ran on three points: planning, preservation, promotion. We were awarded a grant to do a master plan for Main Street, and that was the planning piece,” he says. Expand Your Wings is part of the promotion piece, as is the hashtag #gowest.

As for the preservation piece, Sanders says, “When I was elected, we had an 84% vacancy on Main Street, now it’s under 10%.” Realizing that the town needed to preserve what they have or commercial big box stores would buy downtown, he sat down with all of the property owners and got a plan for Main Street and put policies such as a façade grant program and fee waivers in place to attract businesses. He went to businesses in nearby small towns and figured out what was needed for them to open a second location in West Pelzer.

And now, he says, “You see people sitting outside eating, walking around with [shopping] bags. People are starting to ask ‘what’s next?’ It’s encouraging, to say the least.”


All photos courtesy of Blake Sanders/West Pelzer.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Spartanburg, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.