Though some successful government leaders arrive from other parts of the country, a leader’s dedication can be even stronger when they are homegrown. Julie Wilkie proves the latter, and as top administrator of the city of Greenwood, South Carolina for the last four years, she’s poised to lead her city into a new era of prosperity. This includes the conversion of Greenwood’s Uptown area, an incredible example of an amenity that attracts residents and drives new business growth.
Greenwood is in an area known as the Lakelands – just south of upstate South Carolina that’s surrounded by numerous lakes. With a population of over 22,000 people, Greenwood is the hub of activity for surrounding rural areas.
Wilkie knows the landscape well. A graduate of Ninety-Six High School, Wilkie decided to stay close to home and attend Lander University – also located within city limits – and pursue a bachelor’s degree in political science. “My intent was to attend law school,” Wilkie said.
While at Lander, Wilkie interned with Greenwood County Manager Jim Kier – who was also an adjunct professor at the university. She got her first real exposure to local government through that internship and was encouraged by her college advisor to pursue public administration instead of law school. “I’m probably a better city manager than an attorney,” Wilkie said.
In 2009, she became the assistant to the city manager and quickly became the assistant city manager under City Manager Charlie Barrineau. In this position, she took the reins of Greenwood’s premier event, the South Carolina Festival of Discovery. This blues and barbecue event hosts more than 100 teams aiming to qualify for competition with the Kansas City Barbecue Society and drives nearly $3 million per year in revenue. She also committed to the beautification of the city through her work with the South Carolina Festival of Flowers – an annual event that features topiaries placed throughout Uptown Greenwood. The festival has won countless awards, including Event of the Year in 2013 and 2018 by the South Carolina Festival & Event Association.
However, in 2018, Wilkie began making her biggest impact on her hometown when she was selected as city manager and began focusing on the city’s Uptown area.
Uptown Greenwood once boasted the widest Main Street in the United States – a byproduct of the days when trains passed through the heart of the town and railroad tracks dominated the city’s Central District.
While redevelopment of Uptown initially started with a master plan in 2003 and numerous improvements were made, Wilkie found that several parts of the area no longer made sense for the community and were inhibiting its growth – including some of the traffic patterns. When Uptown Greenwood initially shifted away from railroads, they transitioned to a four-lane Main Street that cut through the city center. “As a kid, I remember coming to Uptown (though I don’t recall knowing it was called Uptown) to shop, attend concerts, etc. However, as I became a teenager/young adult, Uptown had become a pass-through destination… a four-lane highway to get you from the Bypass to the south end of town. As a Lander student, I never came to Uptown… For any reason,” said Wilkie.
In 2021, the city was presented with a new City Center Master Plan – a planning document to guide several projects that change the landscape of Uptown Greenwood. “This next plan is going to focus on growing the businesses in Uptown and really grow the residential component,” Wilkie said.
The 2021 plan – which will carve a path for the next 10-15 years of growth and change – makes road corrections, increases green space, and provides more gathering space in Uptown. The plan calls for Main Street to shift from four lanes to two, which – along with the removal of 1980 architectural arcades – would give the ability to place a large greenspace on one side of the street. “Greenspace lends itself to gathering,” Wilkie said. “Uptown should be a place for gathering. It’s a top priority in all our planning.”
While the plan is still in progress, several improvements have already been made to Uptown that are helping Greenwood drive economic impact and gain recognition regionally and nationally. The American Planning Association honored the work that’s being done in Greenwood by designating it one of its “Great Places in America”, a prestigious list of communities that have excelled through planning. The organization highlighted Greenwood’s Uptown Market, which opened in 2016, the addition of mini-parks along the city’s streetscape, and the creation of a Municipal Improvement Tax District as reasons for the area’s emergence.
Uptown Greenwood has also been established as a hub for festivals with 15 events driving over 100,000 annual visitors to the area. And the vision for new businesses is also being realized with 25 new businesses established, according to 2021 data from Uptown Greenwood Development Corporation.
Image courtesy of Uptown Greenwood Development Corporation
Leading Greenwood through its growth period is only part of Wilkie’s story. With a little more than one year under her belt, Wilkie faced several challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, staff retirements, and keeping the city budget balanced. During the pandemic, while faced with the challenge of cutting costs, Wilkie found a way to save the city nearly $200,000 by reorganizing staff and finding innovative ways for departments to share resources.
She was also hit with several department directors retiring during her first few years at the helm. “I knew when I took the city manager job that I was going to lose many of my department heads to retirement,” Wilkie said. “While serving as city manager, I have replaced eight of eleven department heads.”
Whether it’s championing growth in Uptown, shepherding a city through a global pandemic, or transitioning to a new generation of staff, Wilkie has always focused her efforts on serving people. “Local governments don’t operate under the political environment that often polarizes our nation. At the municipal level, our goal is to provide high-level service to our citizens and make decisions to ensure the future is brighter than the past.”