Street of Dreams
Just a few years ago, a person could get lonely walking along Greenville’s Dickinson Avenue. Not anymore. The avenue and its 10 surrounding blocks have emerged as a dining scene as well as a burgeoning arts and entertainment district. It’s a place that is creating jobs, convincing more residents to live downtown and enticing people around the area to spend a night out. The renaissance is largely powered by ECU alumni who stayed in Greenville after graduation and decided to open small businesses.
Because of their work, their entrepreneurship and their ability to squint and see potential in old, derelict buildings, there’s a real sense of place – as in, this is the place to be in Greenville. There’s food, music, art, mingling. And most of the transformation happened in the last few years.
‘A cool downtown’
Ryan Webb ’99 was one of the first people to call Dickinson Avenue home. He purchased a shell of a building 10 years ago despite always thinking he’d “leave school and live in a cool downtown somewhere.”
When he graduated, Greenville was not that place. But now, Webb says it’s getting close. His building became the Greenville Times, and it took five years to make it habitable. Webb did most of the renovations himself, ripping up rotting wood beams, plucking old nails out of walls and chasing away two pigeons that had claimed the upstairs loft.
He’s seen businesses pop up around him: Smashed Waffles down the street, Dickinson Avenue Public House and Trollingwood Taproom & Brewery across the way — all alumni-owned or operated — as well as a half-dozen others. Of the 14 businesses that opened downtown in 2017, six were in the Dickinson Avenue corridor. Five more opened along Dickinson in 2018, with more to come.
“We’ve been ready for Greenville to grow its cultural experiences and provide a different experience for the community,” says Uptown Greenville CEO and President Bianca Shoneman ’99 ’08. “We want to create a great place to live, eat, shop and invest. We want people to get an education at ECU and then find opportunity locally. This is the place where you can create your business and grow it.”
Uptown Greenville is the city’s downtown development organization. The Dickinson Avenue corridor is meant to be a subdistrict of Uptown Greenville, Shoneman says. It will serve a growing downtown population that’s projected to increase by 400 percent from 2015 to 2018. It’s also become a desirable place for students, young professionals and families to hang out.
So far, developers and entrepreneurs have invested more than $620 million in the area since 2010 and created more than 600 jobs since 2014, according to Uptown Greenville. Three years ago, retail transactions in the Dickinson corridor totaled $3.7 million. In 2018, that number jumped to $25.1 million. Those statistics helped Greenville land the No. 10 spot on Forbes’ 2018 list of best Small Places for Business and Careers.
“It’s refreshing to see late-night foot traffic on Dickinson. Three years ago, that did not happen,” says Kristi Southern ’99 ’04, one of the co-owners of Dickinson Avenue Public House. The restaurant, commonly known as DAP House, has four co-owners, three of them ECU graduates. They saw a need in the market for a place to get eclectic food and drinks, and they were right. Since opening in 2015, they’ve had to hire more servers, kitchen workers and hostesses for crowds – especially on weekends – who wait in clumps by the door for a chance to dine on Korean barbecue beef fries or the popular smoked brisket mac and cheese.
Dickinson is “a self-contained little cool area of town,” adds Emily Jarvis ’05, executive director of A Time for Science, a youth-oriented organization for science education. Though she grew up in Japan, Jarvis followed her brother to ECU for college and never left. She’s been working on Dickinson Avenue since 2012.
“I just found my place here and didn’t want to leave,” she says. “I love Greenville; that’s why I stuck around.”
‘Building what we want to see’
Other alumni who stayed put have a similar passion for the area and a desire to improve it. Ford + Shep owner Brandon Qualls ’05 says he’s always liked Greenville, but now he loves it. He saw potential on Dickinson Avenue and decided to open a restaurant and name it after his two sons, Redford and Shepard. He tries to hire ECU students and speaks to hospitality management classes in his spare time.
“There’s so many of us investing in this area, and it’s only going to grow. We’re building what we want to see, and that’s hopefully adding value for everyone,” he says.
Restaurants like Ford + Shep and DAP House cater to a more adult crowd, and that’s OK, the proprietors say. No one is saying students aren’t welcome to bring their dogs and sip beer on Pitt Street’s outdoor patio or slip into Smashed Waffles for a late-night sugar craving, but Dickinson does have a different, more mature nightlife vibe than some other parts of Greenville.
One street over at Luna Pizza, you won’t find the dollar slice deals or checkered tablecloths emblematic of a college town pizza joint. Instead, food comes with organic tomato sauce and truffle oil served in a building that was once a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Owner Richard Williams, a former ECU professor who left teaching to pursue Italian style pizza making, hopes to elevate the Greenville dining experience.
“The idea is for people to walk into Luna and not believe they’re in Greenville,” he says. “I think alumni who haven’t been to Greenville in a long time are going to be shocked, just shocked to see how this area has developed.”
Jonathan Bowling studio
Jonathan Bowling ’99
Hunter Harrison ’04
Matt Hines ’08
John Jefferson ’08
Ryan Webb ’99
Ford + Shep
Brandon Qualls ’05
Pitt Street Brewing Co.
Steve Jones ’95
Stumpy’s Hatchet House
Brandon Qualls ’05
Jordan Parah ’14
A Time For Science
Emily Jarvis ’05
Brad Hufford ’00 ’09,
Tandi Mahn ’05,
Kristi Southern ’99 ’04,
Farmers & Makers Market
Ryan Webb ’99
Many of the ventures have been boosted by small-business grants from the city. The one-time, $15,000 grants helped get pursuits off the ground, owners say. Of the six Dickinson Avenue businesses that received grants since 2008, all are still open.
In addition, having more graduates in town and more opportunities for those graduates is good for Greenville and makes the city more vibrant. College-educated workers add to local economies, and the places that retain them see plenty of gains. A Brookings Institution study showed the average bachelor’s degree holder contributes $278,000 more to local economies than the average high school graduate over the course of his or her lifetime.
And there’s no such thing as a vibrant city without a vibrant arts scene, Jordan Parah would say.
After graduating with an art degree in 2014, Parah took over the Dirty LAM art studio on Ninth Street and renamed it Studio 9. She opened it up to other artists, including students, looking to rent space. The studio moved up the street to A Time for Science in January. Parah says the support from her mentors at ECU was invaluable.
“To me, the arts provide more depth to a community. I’m trying to show how important that is for us. The arts help draw people to an area in the first place,” she says.
Other artists, like Jonathan Bowling ’99, are proving synonymous to the area. His industrial animal sculptures crouch beside flower beds, guard parking lots and prance in open spaces. There’s also Whirligig Stage, a 100-seat theater that opened in July and hosts music performances and plays.
Long term, Michael Overton ’96 has considerable influence on what Dickinson will look like. His commercial real estate group manages 12,000 square feet and leases 30,000 square feet of space along the avenue, including all the retail space on the first floor of the new apartment complex, Dickinson Lofts. Overton says his group is careful about which businesses it works with, ensuring they complement one another and will create daytime foot traffic. As a lifetime Greenville resident, Overton says he’s buying into the town because he loves it.
“We want the change, we want the growth and we want to see Greenville prosper. This hopefully creates value for future generations and makes them want to live here,” he says.
If one thing is sure, it’s that the Dickinson Avenue corridor is only going to grow. The microcosm of breweries, restaurants, barber shops and workout venues will soon have more neighbors. Qualls just opened another business, Stumpy’s Hatchet House, where visitors can throw axes at targets for fun.
And Webb purchased the building next to the Greenville Times and is turning it into the Dickinson Ave. Farmers & Makers Market. Crafters and artisans will be able to sell their wares and host workshops year-round. He already has around 60 vendors interested. “I think we’re getting to that town I wanted to live in,” he says.