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A Dream Realized: Community Driven Revitalization in Spartanburg

2014 August 26

By Timothy Fields, Jr.

Sometimes you wake up from a bad dream. You pray it’s not real but when you open your eyes, the reality of the situation is staring you right in the face.

An abandoned fertilizer plant in Spartansburg

Harold Mitchell faced a similar situation and learned about environmental injustice when family, friends, and neighbors in his Spartanburg, South Carolina community got sick — many of whom died young from cancer and respiratory diseases. His father and sister died due to health concerns suspected to be related to exposure to environmental contamination. Harold learned even more about this issue as he experienced similar health concerns. He began to investigate the contaminated sites in his community, and with the help of his neighbors and the support of EPA Region 4, he discovered the source of the public health and environmental problems in his community. In 1997, he founded ReGenesis to help make sense of what he was discovering and to tackle what officials once called an “impossible task” of turning around streets filled with crack houses and neighborhoods impacted by numerous environmental concerns, blight, and hopelessness. In the intervening 17 years, the ReGenesis collaborative partnership grew a $20,000 EPA environmental justice small grant into more than $250 million in public and private funding through partnerships with more than 120 organizations to transform these communities.

The story of ReGenesis is about a community and its remarkable leader being exposed to environmental contamination and then implementing collaborative problem-solving, which identifies a public health problem, brings people together to work collaboratively to envision, and implement broad solutions towards creating visible change. The story of ReGenesis is about a place that “couldn’t get any worse,” according to one resident, that is well on its way to being transformed.

Community members and partners cleaning up the Arkwright landfill

ReGenesis both represented and presented local community concerns as part of a dialogue to assess and clean up contaminated sites and address the myriad challenges facing the community. As the focus of ReGenesis evolved, the community-based environmental justice organization saw an opportunity to expand discussions with local government and environmental agencies to include equitable neighborhood revitalization. In 2000, the ReGenesis Environmental Justice Partnership was formed by representatives of ReGenesis, Spartanburg County, and the City of Spartanburg, South Carolina to promote equitable development for the Arkwright and Forest Park neighborhoods. As well, a dialogue between ReGenesis and Rhodia (now Solvay) began to address the communities’ concerns about having a chemical facility in the middle of the neighborhoods. Many felt that the chemical plant would be an impediment to redevelopment. But over several years and many discussions (both formal and informal), the local community and industry found common ground. The partnership continues today.

The new partnership brought considerable funding to the area, leveraging more than $250 million for the following reinvestment and development opportunities that benefit both residents and their industry neighbors:

One of several new healthcare centers in Spartansburg

  • Critical transportation changes now mean that the only road into the communities is no longer blocked by standing trains. With the addition of a vital second entrance into and out of the community, residents are no longer isolated. Emergency response drills mean that the community is prepared for any potential incident that could occur in the area.
  • The creation of several community health centers means that residents no longer have to travel long distances for medical care. The centrally-located facilities not only support school and behavioral health initiatives, but serve migrant healthcare needs as well.
  • More than 500 new affordable housing units for residents and workers led to the removal of severely distressed public housing and new homeownership opportunities.
  • Job training and employment programs that empower residents through economic opportunity.
  • Environmental cleanup of formerly contaminated properties have turned brownfields into viable properties, removing eyesores and affording other redevelopment opportunities, such as a solar farm that is planned.
  • Increased retail development, such as a long sought after grocery store, a pharmacy, and other shops located within the community.
  • A new state of the art community center that serves as a hub of activity for the community, from young to elderly residents.

In 2009, ReGenesis received the EPA 2009 Environmental Justice Achievement Award, for its long-term – and still ongoing projects addressing environmental hazards, economic development, health care, and housing in the Arkwright community.

Harold Mitchell listens to a community member's concerns

This transformation did not happen overnight. Nor was the journey easy. Now others are looking at ReGenesis’ work in Spartanburg as a national model of environmental justice achievement, as well as a national model of how community-private-public partnerships can work. This work has effectively addressed environmental protection and community revitalization issues in the Arkwright community in Spartanburg.

But as Harold Mitchell has said repeatedly, he could not have done it without the people of Arkwright. “The one thing that we did have was the mark of the people within the community itself. We went through three mayors, four city managers, turnover on (City) Council, but the only thing that didn’t change was a little acorn, which was the community, and that was the piece that kept everything moving here.”

About the author: Timothy Fields, Jr., is Senior Vice President of MDB, Inc., a public health and environmental management consulting firm in Washington, DC. Prior to going into environmental consulting twelve years ago, Tim served as U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator in charge of environmental cleanup, waste management, and emergency response (1997-2001).

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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18 Responses leave one →
  1. Devorah permalink
    August 27, 2014

    Mr. Fields,

    Thank you for sharing this incredible story. I was amazed at what this project has been able to achieve. This is a great example of how community led partnerships can create amazing results.

  2. Carlton Eley permalink
    August 27, 2014

    When I enrolled in graduate school for urban planning in 1996, I sought an answer to the question “what does the outcome look like when environmental justice is properly addressed during the community planning process.” I didn’t find a satisfactory answer in graduate school. However, I didn’t realize Harold Mitchell, Jr. and his network of partners were already working on the answer in 1996.

    On the behalf of all urban and regional planning students who seek answers to long-standing questions about environmental justice; advocacy planning; as well as planning and ethics, WE SALUTE YOU!!!

    Thank you for providing ‘a satisfactory answer’. The answer is “it has been done, and it can be done”.

  3. Akosua permalink
    August 29, 2014

    $20,000 to over $250,000,000 in public and private funding is extremely impressive. This is a great example of how community partnerships can lead to some amazing outcomes.

  4. Rhonda permalink
    August 31, 2014

    This is exactly what communities mean when they talk about Environmental Justice, addressing the past environmental impacts and getting revitalization that is designed by the community and their partners in a collaborative way. Thank you so much for sharing this story.

    Rhonda Rizzio

  5. Cynthia P. permalink
    September 1, 2014

    I am so proud of the work that this community has done over the years to make their dream a reality. Ever visit reveals new successes in the revitalization process. Thank you ReGenesis for being a great example to be shared with other communities. Thank you Harold Mitchell for your leadership. Thank you Tim Fields for lending your expertise to this effort. Thanks for sharing this story.

  6. Professor Piementa-Bey permalink
    September 1, 2014

    I teach a environmental course and have been looking for information to help me introduce environmental justice to my students in a meaningful way. I plan to utilize many of the blogs that I have found here to link environmental policy with the impacts on communities.

    I would like to know who created this blog, it would be great to have them speak to my students.

    • Cynthia P. permalink
      September 11, 2014

      Professor Piementa-Bey, thanks for your comments. Educationing youth about environmental justices is important and beneficial. Please contact me and I’ll put you in touch with key project partners to explore opportunities to have them speak to your classes. Cynthia Peurifoy, EPA Region 4, peurifoy.cynthia@epa.gov.

  7. TeaParty 4 Life permalink
    September 1, 2014

    Let me say that I disagree with about 99% of what EPA and other Feds usually do, way to many regulations and not enough freedom for the states and local government. I grew up near Spartanburg in Greer which is a stones throw away, so I know the challenges that this area has faced over the years. I have actually seen first hand the good work that the ReGenesis project has brought to the area, Business and local folk have created some real positive change. The new health care center and community center have helped pull people together and the new housing is top notch. If The Federal Govt supported more projects like this I might actually believe that you cared about the everyday man and woman. Congrats to Mr. Mitchell and the good people of Spartanburg for lifting yourselves up by your bootstraps and not depending on others. in 2016 when my party takes over I would definitely suggest they support these types of local efforts.

  8. Jane permalink
    September 2, 2014

    Mr. Mitchell & Mr. Fields,

    This is a very innovative example of what happens when everyone comes together and focuses on what can happen instead of what can’t happen. You definitely took on a monumental task and achieved some phenomenal results with transformations that are unfortunately rarely seen or maybe they are just not highlighted enough. I have often said that is why I appreciate this blog, I get to read about the great work that is often overlooked. Are there other redevelopment activities happening that were not shared in this story?

    Jane Willows

  9. Liam permalink
    September 2, 2014

    As an aspiring “Planner” I just want to say that this is an incredible project. After reading the blog I did some additional research and there are so many other parts to this redevelopment story. I would suggest that everyone google “ReGenesis Inc. in Spartanburg, SC”. I would also suggest that there be a second part to this blog. Maybe this story could be shared with Colleges and Universities that have planning departments.

  10. Liam permalink
    September 2, 2014

    One last question:

    Would this be considered “Equitable Development”??? I read a few previous blogs that were focused on this topic and wanted to make sure that it would apply to this project and the approach that they have taken.

    • Carlton Eley permalink
      September 2, 2014

      Yes, yes, yes!!! The ReGenesis Project is a wonderful example of many things happening at once, including ‘equitable development’. I reference the project when I lecture and write — http://www.planetizen.com/node/46421.

  11. Tim Fields permalink
    September 2, 2014

    Ms. Jane Willows: Under Harold Mitchell’s leadership and with the help of the ReGenesis partners, we have confronted and overcome a number of redevelopment challenges over the past 14 years. With the cleanup of two Superfund toxic waste sites, we are now focusing on turning these former contaminated sites into solar farm facilities, and are creating urban golf initiatives on these sites. This redevelopment effort is also being done in partnership with four nearby former brownfield sites. Former old and abandoned housing has been turned into new residential housing facilities for the citizens of Spartanburg. One Community Health Center that was established a decade ago has now grown to four community health centers in the area, and with a new mobile health care facility being initiated. Solvay, a local chemical facility, has been a tremendous partner in working on beautification projects in proximity to nearby neighbors. More to come in a future blog! Tim Fields

  12. Omega Wilson permalink
    September 2, 2014

    Great evolving work Harold, Tim, and Cynthia Peurifoy! I have had the good fortune to be a part of workshops with Harold Mitchell in North Charleston, SC sponsored by Dr. Sacoby Wilson, Herbert Frazier-Raheem, and others. I truly trust that the ReGenesis Model in Spartanburg will help environmental justice communities in North Charleston impacted by historic goods movement expansion plans (port, rail, and highway corridors). ReGenesis should be an enduring EJ example that offers a template for various environmental justice, climate justice, and civil rights improvement in a vast array of geographical areas. Continued best wishes, Omega & Brenda Wilson, West End Revitalization Association, Mebane, NC http://blog.epa.gov/ej/2012/12/1005/

  13. Gelena Constantine permalink
    September 3, 2014

    Congratulations and many thanks to all those involved in contributing to a sustainable livelihood and success of Spartanburg’s communities. Thank you for not giving up, for your creativity and innovative ideas. You’ve truly given more than what can be described in words. A great model for others…

  14. Lea Michele permalink
    September 4, 2014

    I am a new reader to your blog series and have found it to be very educational. I have a particular interest in Climate Change and Climate Justice issues. You have done some incredible work in Spartanburg and you are to be commended. I was wondering if any of your work is linked to Climate Change?

    Lea Michele

  15. Robert permalink
    September 6, 2014

    This is a excellent story of a community-private-public partnership. I would think this is a model that everyone could get behind and from the comments I have read on here and the stories I have found in the press, this it seems like a win /win for everyone involved. I have seen some very good videos on this blog site over the last year, I would love to see one on this project, it seems like it would be a great educational tool for those trying to learn how to revitalize a community in a way that is inclusive.

  16. Victoria Robinson permalink
    September 9, 2014

    EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice produced a training video entitled, Environmental Justice: The Power of Partnerships–The Collaborative Problem-Solving Model at work in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Limited copies are available but OEJ is exploring options for making the 45-minute video more available.

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