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I-85 continues to power SC Upstate growth

ANDERSON, S.C.  — When Interstate 85’s four lanes quietly opened on Sept. 8, 1964, South Carolina’s first interstate highway drew little fanfare.

Miles from downtown Anderson, the road opened without ribbon-cutting, political speeches or extensive news coverage. It was described as “a supermodern, controlled-access highway” that would someday spread to 668 miles in length. But when highway patrolmen removed the barricades at 8 a.m. that Tuesday, Anderson residents were more concerned about Hurricane Dora.

Spinning near the Florida coast, the storm threatened to follow the path of Hurricane Cleo, which just a month earlier had dumped 3.15 inches of rain on Anderson in one day — part of a record-high 77.4 inches that soaked the city that year.

Fifty years later, Dora and Cleo are long forgotten. But I-85 continues to mold the future of Anderson.

Anderson was the focus on the last segment in South Carolina’s 106-mile part of I-85 in the summer of 1964, when a 13-mile stretch from Liberty Highway (now Exit 21) was linked to the intersection of U.S. 29 (now Exit 34).

That ignited commercial development, boosted land values, made new work for road construction crews and sparked new interest from national chain stores.

Less than a year after the arrival of I-85, two primary links to the road — Clemson Highway and Old Greenville Highway — were transformed into four-lane roads from the interstate to downtown Anderson. Within 10 years after its completion, real estate near I-85 doubled in price throughout the Upstate.

Built at a cost of $267 million, the South Carolina section of I-85 transformed the Upstate economically. In 1993, Business Week referred to “The Boom Belt” as a 30-year success story along I-85 that provided “lessons for the rest of the country.” Three years later, The Wall Street Journal pointed to the same corridor as a magnet for manufacturing.

Today, economic geographers such as T. Bruce Yandle refer to the region as “Charlanta,” a 250-mile hayfield-turned-commercial ellipse that powers the nation’s third-largest economic region. Only the more established corridors of Boston-to-Washington, and the Chicago area, are busier economic belts today.

“I-85 defines the region,” said Yandle, dean emeritus of Clemson University’s College of Business & Behavioral Science. “If that route had gone somewhere else … that area, instead of this one, would have been the economic path.”

The I-85 route, which includes 10 exits in Anderson County, follows the Atlanta-to-Charlotte railroad line built 82 years earlier. Two other routes were considered, one slightly to the west, following U.S. 123, and one further east near Greenwood.

Anderson’s 37-mile slice is the state’s largest of the 106-mile I-85 pie.

Just as that railroad line brought western South Carolina from what Yandle calls “the backwaters of economic activity” in the 19th century, I-85 became a conduit for 20th century growth.

“It is because of the I-85 belt that the Upstate is a dominant economic region in South Carolina,” Yandle said, “and the reason the Upstate compares well to the rest of the state in terms of income, education, well-being and educational standards.”

The impact of the highway quickly became apparent, as dozens of national retail chain stores took a new interest in Clemson Highway, which soon became known as Clemson Boulevard. In 1973, Michelin broke ground on a commercial manufacturing plant, a 1.4-million square foot facility just three miles from I-85’s Exit 19.

“We’re living in a world where inventory is no longer sitting in local storefronts. The inventory is located in those trucks moving up and down the interstate,” Yandle said. “Those trucks are mobile warehouses, and it’s critically important to the growth of any city to be near them.”

The road inspired entrepreneurs like Frances Crowder to build an international business without leaving town. I-85 gave customers in 25 states and three Canadian provinces easy access to his computer software firm in downtown Greenville.

“They could fly into Greenville and in just a few minutes be in my office, and yet I could do that while living in Anderson,” said Crowder, now retired from business and an Anderson County Council member.

Today, the same road connects his beloved Anderson countryside with entertainment venues.

“We can enjoy something at the Peace Center and in a short drive come back home to Anderson County, where there’s not wall-to-wall traffic,” Crowder said.

Too young to drive when I-85 opened, Anderson native and Mayor Terence Roberts is often reminded often of its present impact.

“In terms of job growth and quality of life, there’s no question that I-85 has helped us,” Roberts said. “One example is Skins’ restaurant, which started with one store in Anderson and now is a regional restaurant of 12 stores. They probably couldn’t have done that without the interstate.”

Matt Thrasher, part of the management team at Skins’ Hot Dogs, said Clemson Boulevard was the first expansion target when it added a store in 1989.

“Everything seemed to be moving in the direction of Clemson Boulevard. All the major retailers were moving to the mall and surrounding areas,” Thrasher said. “We felt we have to have a store on that side of town to take advantage of the traffic.”

Thrasher said I-85 “opened up Greenville and Georgia to us.”

The interstate altered the residential landscape, creating housing booms near S.C. 81 and S.C. 153 that have since resulted in construction of at least five new schools in those areas.

As the city continues its slow stretch toward I-85, there are commercial casualties. Less traffic in the eastern part of town leads to less growth and fewer jobs.

“Urban growth and population studies tell us that things always grow toward the interstate,” Roberts said.

“That’s apparent when you look at Anderson, Greenville and Spartanburg.”

In a 30-mile stretch from the north end of the county to Main Street, a driver today would find only a handful of restaurants, none of them national chains, and a few past-their-prime motels. That’s a dramatic contrast to the 1950s, when U.S. 29, carried heavy traffic through Anderson on its way from Baltimore to Pensacola, Fla.

City planners often ask Yandle how to avert decline and stagnation on the noninterstate side of town.

“There’s no way to avoid that,” Yandle said. “Retail stories want to be near a high-traffic artery, so an interstate pulls everything in its direction. Everything else becomes less cost-effective.”

In some situations, Yandle has observed what he calls “equalization,” which occurs when the cost of land and congestion near the interstate inflates to a point where investors buy elsewhere, he said.

He doesn’t foresee that in Anderson soon.

“Not in the case of I-85,” Yandle said, “because it has continued to grow. By widening I-85 a few years ago (in 2003), I-85 kept its advantage.

“The Charlanta belt is big. The force is with us, and I think it’s going to continue to be an advantage for a long time.”

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