Matthew Scully opened his restaurant at the corner of Fifth and Evans streets four years ago with "$15,000 and an idea." (Photography by Jay Clark)
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ECU alumni provide vision, investment for a vibrant city center

By Kathryn Kennedy
ECU News Services

The skyline of downtown Greenville is changing. The iconic clock tower atop the Pitt County Courthouse has been joined by another timepiece in the last year— a clock that sits atop a new 230-space parking deck. Three blocks away, construction of a 550-bed student apartment complex reaches toward the sky.

What’s happening on the ground is changing, too.

Visit downtown any Wednesday night during the summer and you’ll find the Umbrella Market—dozens of stalls packed with fresh produce, baked goods or handmade wares. Art exhibits open the first Friday of every month, and before each home football game, Freeboot Friday turns uptown purple and gold with music and vendors.

Live. Play. Eat. Shop. Invest. That’s the mantra of Uptown Greenville, the nonprofit group whose two employees and many dedicated volunteers lead the center-city revitalization effort.
Bianca Gentile Shoneman
They’ve seen progress on all fronts over the past three years. And leading nearly every program or project is a Pirate.

A visionary leader

Uptown Greenville was founded in 1994 as a grassroots effort to encourage revitalization and investment in downtown. To understand what’s changing there today, you have to understand the limitless energy of Bianca Gentile Shoneman ’99 ’08, president and CEO of Uptown Greenville since 2012.
Her resume includes time with the Peace Corps in El Salvador, grant writing for numerous rural projects and working for the N.C. Department of Commerce as a senior economic development planner. But it was a professor in her master’s program, Bob Edwards of ECU’s Department of Geography, who reshaped the trajectory of her life’s work.

“I’m here because of my mentor,” she says of Edwards, “and his teaching me that my interest in poverty alleviation and economic development could be done in my own backyard.”

Shoneman spends her days on the phone and on the go, walking her district and singing its praises to anyone she encounters. She gives equal time to those who bought into uptown early and prospective tenants, business owners and investors.

She says there are many reasons to invest in downtown Greenville.

“Center-city revitalization matters for economic reasons,” Shoneman says. “It helps with (employee) retention and recruiting, it helps with (the city’s) image and reputation. Success in uptown does take the public and the private. The public (sector) has said, ‘this matters to us,’ and the private has responded.”

Scott Senatore ’11, president of the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce, says many people have worked hard to transform the downtown area. That work, and the transformation it is producing, benefits more than just Greenville, he says.

“In recent years, uptown has become a cross-section between economic development, quality of life, the arts and business, which is a great sign for the health and growth of our entire community,” he says.

Performing culinary arts

Ask Shoneman how she knows uptown is evolving, and her response has little to do with dollars or large-scale development.

She points to The Scullery.

At the corner of Fifth and Evans streets, the lunch spot and coffee shop—which also serves homemade ice cream—is empty only when closed.

“We had $15,000 and an idea,” owner Matthew Scully ’04 says of his business’ humble beginnings. That startup capital came from the city through a grant program to boost investment in uptown and west Greenville.

Scully’s vocal studies degree from the School of Music may not have taught him to write a business plan, but he said it’s been a great help nonetheless.

“This is sort of performance art in a way,” he says. “I have to improvise, think on my feet. And composing a meal is not really different than composing a work of art.”

It doesn’t hurt that he grew up in his dad’s Pinehurst gift shop and café and then spent several years after he left the opera working occasional catering jobs and waiting tables at another uptown establishment—The Starlight Café.

“We live in a great area with great ingredients,” Scully says. “And we’ve had a lot of support from the community.”

Four years since opening, the city continues to support The Scullery—in the sense that city employees are regular patrons. So are ECU students and staff. Scully received Uptown Greenville’s inaugural Small Business of the Year award in 2014.
Serving students

Like Scully, Holly Garriott ’01 ’05 was an artist before she became a business owner—in her case, a ceramicist with a master’s from ECU’s School of Art and Design.

Now she works to ensure others can find opportunities in the art world through Emerge Gallery on Evans Street, which also operates as the arts council for Pitt County.
Holly Garriott at Emerge Gallery
“In the fine arts, it’s very hard to be a professional artist or to get a job in the arts,” she says. “You need to learn business skills. I wanted to teach classes on the business of art.”

She took that idea to East Carolina’s office of the Small Business and Technology Development Center—a University of North Carolina system program run by N.C. State University that provides management counseling and educational services to small and mid-sized businesses across the state. They helped her write her first business plan.

“The first time I did financials, it gave me a headache,” Garriott says. “Now, I love it.”

SBTDC staff also suggested she attend an Uptown Greenville meeting. There, she met Don Edwards, owner of University Book Exchange and longtime downtown property developer and manager. He made her an offer for the good of uptown.

“We moved in rent-free for the first three years,” she says. “He knew if you brought the arts, it would bring foot traffic to the area.”

She’s paying back the help she received by offering internships to nearly 40 ECU students each year. At Emerge, they develop business acumen and learn to market their goods or skills. The students operate the pottery wheels now—not Garriott—and coach hundreds of kids in a variety of summer camps.

“People say, ‘oh you don’t do art anymore,’” Garriott says. “But every day I’m creating something. We want to keep our grads here. We want it to happen more than anybody.”
Uptown map. Click on image for larger view.

As Emerge has grown and prospered since 2001, Garriott has watched uptown begin to thrive. Restaurants opened, and Jefferson’s drew attention to the area with the renovation of the Blount-Harvey Building, now home to eight businesses within its three stories.

Emerge was a partner in launching the inaugural Uptown ArtWalk and Umbrella Market and was involved in the creation of PirateFest. The annual event now draws 35,000 people downtown for a street festival and celebration of all things Pirate.

“We truly are the heart of the city,” Garriott says of uptown. “It’s a cultural destination, the best restaurants are here, and we’re still working on retail.”

“I feel like it’s happened fast,” she adds. “The next 15 years are going to be incredible.”

Building community, promoting safety

When it comes to community policing, Sgt. Rudy Oxendine ’09 is setting a high bar for his fellow officers. Business owners refer to him by his first name. Entering The Scullery for a meeting, he’s stopped multiple times by smiling citizens before he can reach his table.

Oxendine credits ECU with preparing him for these daily interactions by showing a young man from Lumberton a broader perspective of the world.

Sgt. Rudy Oxendine of the Greenville Police Department leads the Center City Unit, which aims to boost economic development by keeping crime low.
“People are people, and there are tons of good people from all backgrounds,” he says. “That’s what I learned at East Carolina.”

Oxendine leads eight officers who make up the center city unit, created in January 2014. He says they’ve made progress already. Greenville Police statistics show a 34.4 percent reduction in violent crime between 2011 and 2014. All crime was down 25.4 percent in 2014, compared to the previous year.

“Unlike other task forces, we’re doing anything we can to promote economic development,” Oxendine says. “The main way to do that is making sure crime is low.”

“Our downtown is the safest it’s been in many years,” he says.

The gradual departure of some bars and nightclubs from the area has done a lot to improve conditions, Oxendine says. He cites the “superblock project” as an example of a high-crime spot that once housed four nightclubs on East Fifth Street. Now it’s home to a cookie shop, a clothing store and the ECU Registrar’s Office, which moved from the Whichard Building to a leased 8,062-square-foot space in February.
It adds up

In the last three years, Uptown Greenville reports the district has added the following:

700,000 gross square feet of residential development 

63,000 gross square feet of new and adaptive reuse office space

22 new businesses

162 new part- or full-time jobs

1,248 new public and/or private parking spaces 

Additionally, in 2014, Uptown Greenville hosted more than 60 events and engaged 700 volunteers.

Projects like that can produce a “snowball effect for good,” Oxendine says.

The superblock project was designed, built and managed by CommunitySmith, a Raleigh-based adaptive reuse and historic preservation firm. Shoneman and others say it’s not unusual for investors outside the region to ask about the uptown area these days. But the community continues to rely on the investment of stakeholders inside Greenville.

Enticing people to live uptown

Local developer Jim Ward ’74 and business partner Tom Taft have spearheaded what might be the most visible change to the uptown landscape in recent years—a large student apartment complex south of Reade Circle with easy access to Main Campus.

“The thing that downtown needed was critical mass (of people),” Ward says. He believes their complex, The Boundary, expected to open in August, will provide that.

Upcoming in Uptown

The Dickinson Avenue Corridor

The next frontier in downtown revitalization is Dickinson Avenue, says Uptown Greenville President and CEO Bianca Shoneman. A nanobrewery operated by Bobby Schultz ’13 and Gray Williams ’12 and a new gastropub—backed by ECU alumni Brad Hufford ’00 ’09, Tandi Mahn ’05 and Kristi Southern ’99 ’04, among others—are expected to open in rehabilitated spaces on Dickinson over the next year.

Ryan Webb ’95 already operates his Greenville Times publication out of a Dickinson storefront, and you can’t miss the veritable zoo of animals galloping, prancing and crawling in green spaces along the street by artist Jonathan Bowling ’99. Each one is crafted from reclaimed scrap metal.

The Fifth Street Theatre

The city received a formal letter of intent this summer from a potential developer/operator for the former State Theater, a performance space that later operated as a movie theater on West Fifth Street across from Five Points Plaza. The goal is to convey the property to the developer by the end of this year and have the theater operational by next fall. Shoneman also says progress is being made toward attracting a hotel to the city center.

Millennial Campus/ Warehouse District

ECU is moving ahead with plans to rehabilitate a seven-block area in Greenville’s warehouse district as a millennial campus— a site where the university can collaborate with others to commercialize research discoveries and offer advanced training to benefit the region’s high-tech industries.

—Kathryn Kennedy and Steve Tuttle

“It’ll really be interesting to see the impact they’ll have in that area—553 residents and their guests,” he says. “The center city is catching on. Walkable, sustainable (living) is in right now.”

Ward is another lifetime Greenville resident, but he admits to being shaped by his time at East Carolina in particular; specifically, by former Chancellor Leo W. Jenkins.

Continue reading below image.

Jim Ward in front of The Boundary

“I saw firsthand what a never-say-die attitude can do,” Ward says. “What a wonderful example he set for an impressionable young man like me.”

The new complex will include 10,000 square feet of business space on the first floor. And Taft and Ward have announced plans to develop a second multi-million-dollar “campus-edge” property on 10th Street across from the future ECU student center.

“We have a love for Greenville. We see the energy that’s taking place,” Ward says. “There are a lot of places we could go, but we wanted to make a difference—as best we could—for Greenville.

“I hope I can be an ambassador for the uptown dynamic,” he says. “I’ve now put my money where my mouth is. We’re hoping it’s the tide that lifts all boats.”

'Town and gown' work in tandem

Don Edwards, right, has been doing business in downtown Greenville for 46 years. Though not an alumnus himself, Edwards has seen the impact East Carolina University and its alumni have had on the area. 

Edwards owns University Book Exchange and several other properties downtown. His father opened U.B.E. in 1968, and Edwards began working there in 1969 when he was a junior in high school.

“When I first started, the downtown was vibrant and fun, with lots of retail shops,” he said. “But in the 1970s and 1980s, there was tremendous decline with the coming of malls and urban sprawl. Since revitalization efforts began in the 1990s, I’ve continued to see steady improvement in the area. 

“We’ve got a great mix of retail, residential, restaurants, galleries,” he says. “The downtown is a strong center for the East Carolina community. It creates a sense of place right at the campus edge. Greenville is becoming a fabulous college town. I’ve seen dramatic growth recently.”

Galleries such as Art Avenue and Emerge thrived when Uptown Properties functioned like an arts incubator with no to low rent. Appogee, a dealer of Apple products to businesses, was started by an ECU alumna and is in the upstairs of a property on Evans Street.

Another business, MHA Works, a Durham-based firm that hires alumni for its Greenville office, is designing one of the new student centers at ECU.

Through his business, Edwards has adopted ECU as his own, and he says supporting the university is supporting the region.


“I am a total eastern North Carolina advocate,” he says. “There is nothing more important to the future of our town and our region than the success of East Carolina University. I have a passion for making East Carolina and Greenville the best they can be.

“This is truly a town-and-gown partnership,” he says.

­—Jackie Drake