THE CREATOR // DARREN MEYER
Darren Meyer’s canvas is land.
“At its root, what we do is we shape environments in places for daily life,” says Meyer, 41, a principal at MKSK Studios.
He joined the landscape architecture, urban design, and planning firm after graduating from Ball State University in Indiana.
Meyer opened MKSK’s first office outside of the Midwest last year when the City of Greenville awarded the Columbus, Ohio–based company a $574,000 contract for City Park—the green space development planned for West Greenville. With an estimated price tag of about $19 million, the park is expected to be a showpiece when ground’s broken in 2020.
“The project itself is really a forward-thinking approach by the City to say, one, we want to make a great investment in the community with this public park space, and, two, we know from our experience with Falls Park, and in other cities, when you create great public space, it does have an impact on the neighborhood around it.”
Asked about his major influences, Meyer names his parents. His father, Ramon, and mother, Betty, were classical musicians. Ramon was a conductor and percussionist who performed with, among others, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Betty was an organist and pianist.
“I look at how they went about the mechanics of working with other creative people, how they collaborate,” he says. “How did they engage with others in terms of their art, bringing a lot of personalities together to create something beautiful?”
Landscape architecture attracted him because of its dynamism. “The building materials that architects use are fairly static. You look at a building like this,” he says, sitting in The Village Grind’s renovated space in the Village of West Greenville. “The brick here may be a century old, and it has all sorts of charm and ambiance, but when you work with landscape materials, they’re constantly changing. They’re constantly growing. You can’t sculpt that perfect piece on the canvas and have it stay that way. It always changes.”
Circumstances shift, too. Poorer neighborhoods face gentrification. Environmentalists are concerned about impact. Policymakers and bureaucrats regulate. “I think the challenge that most cities are facing now is, how do you make equitable decisions for everyone in the community to make sure everyone has access to public greenspace, affordable housing options, quality of life?” he questions.
He’s keen on green’s multilayered benefits. “There’s a tremendous amount of peer-reviewed evidence that supports the notion that everything from lowering stress to more physical health is all positively impacted by exposure to or access to greenspace,” he says.
Moreover, companies looking to move or expand to the Upstate need talent. Talent wants a great place to live. That’s partly why he and his wife of 15 years, Katie, relocated to Greenville with their four sons—all under 10. “The public parks system and the trail system, like the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail, are just such a huge part of the quality of life here.”
As City Park’s project manager, Meyer demurred at calling himself a game-changer, saying his project is bigger than he is. “We were talking about how much I love seeing how people use parks when they’re done. The benefit of having four boys is I get to see how kids will use parks in ways I would’ve never imagined,” he says.
MAN WITH A PLAN // Darren Meyer of the landscape architecture, urban design, and planning firm MKSK Studios, is the project manager of the proposed City Park, set to break ground in 2020 in West Greenville. Meyer moved his family from Columbus, Ohio, to helm the project.
Mari Steinbach, director of the Greenville’s Parks & Recreation Department, appreciates what Meyer brings to Greenville. “He is organized and focused on the fine details that others might brush aside or miss altogether,” she says. “He is sharp and catches the suggestions that are even often unspoken.”
THE PROTECTOR // ANDREA COOPER
Andrea Cooper’s a convener. As the new executive director of the nearly 20-year-old Upstate Forever Conservation and Environmental Organization, Cooper balances disparate constituencies: residents, government types, developers, and farmers. “We must have a shared vision, and we have to be willing to sit down and figure out where our interests overlap, and how we can look at our municipalities and what makes sense. It’s creative, and that’s what it has to be because we’re looking for creative solutions.”
Cooper obtained an art history degree from the University of Colorado and attended Parsons School of Design in Paris. She actually started off as a volunteer in Sierra Leone in West Africa. A civil war cut that short. She eventually wound up in Charleston, where she helped with her family’s real estate business.
LAY OF THE LAND // As the executive director of Upstate Forever, Andrea Cooper works to protect critical Upstate lands and waters for future generations. Mike McGirr, executive director of Feed & Seed, seeks to bring farmers and consumers together to encourage the use of local produce.
Along the way, she met her husband, Edwin, an attorney. While they were considering a move to Greenville, they ran across Brice Hipp during a July Fourth week visit to Brevard in 2015. Brice, Upstate Forever’s board chair and Mary Hipp’s sister-in-law, knew Cooper from her Liberty Fellowship, an intensive leadership program. At the time, Upstate Forever’s founding director, Brad Wyche, was stepping down. Brice immediately hooked Cooper up with the search committee. Cooper stepped up the following October. “Andrea is a game-changer because she finds in-the-box thinking incredibly unsatisfying,” Brice says. “She’s a searcher and a truthseeker. She is not afraid to ask questions, even if it means being uncomfortable.” Now, Cooper’s 11 full-time and six part-time staff members are working to redefine an uncomfortable message into one that more easily explains just how high the stakes are.
GRASS ROOTS // Andrea Cooper, the executive director of Upstate Forever, poses at Greenbrier Farms in Easley, one of many tracts that receives protection from the organization.
“We have 300,000 people moving to the Upstate in the next 25 years,” she says. “Our prospective land use is expected to double. So we are going to pave over twice as much as what we’ve paved over already. We’re on this crash course to becoming Anywhere USA.”
Like Meyer, Andrea cringes at the label game-changer; she cringes at labels, in general—don’t say tree-hugger around her. “If there was a game-changing aspect to it, it’s figuring out how to resonate with the broader community, like why should Joe Schmoe care? He should, because his commute time will increase and greenspaces and quality of life will decrease if we continue to grow in this sprawling, unfettered way. There’s nothing wrong with development, it just needs to occur in the right places.”
Her concerns hit home.
“I’ve lived in South Carolina more than I’ve lived anywhere my entire life, and I’ve raised my two boys here. I don’t want to have happen here what happened where I grew up.” She’s referring to Westport, Connecticut, near New York City. “That’s where the farms got gobbled up by McMansions and subdivisions. I came back from college, and it was a different place, and it was really sad. The soul was gone.”
THE PRODUCER // MIKE MCGIRR
Exuberant, outspoken, funny, Mike McGirr—the 49-year-old executive director of Feed & Seed billed as the Upstate’s first food hub—tells a story with the same flair a celebrity chef uses when serving up a flamboyant and unexpected dish. He describes his arrival in Greenville as “enormously circuitous,” an atypical understatement.
From his childhood in near-abject poverty to bright-lights jobs in Manhattan and San Francisco to private-chef gigs for big-name celebrities, McGirr’s now here to change how we farm and feed ourselves.
“I work with the peeps,” he says, sitting at a table at Reedy River Farms, just across the river from Feed & Seed’s building at 159 Welborn Street. “So I work with farmers, poor people, and then I mix with the rich people, because I come from poor people, and I worked with rich people.”
Sounds like fresh corn. It’s not.
“My dad was the child of a third-shift lineman at an automotive factory,” he says, referring to Stark County, Ohio, where the annual $24,015 per capita income is $10,000 a year less than Greenville County’s and just at the federal poverty threshold. “My grandpa’s name was Junior. It was his given name, and it’s on his gravestone,” he says. “The story in the family is that the family was so poor they couldn’t even afford to give him a name.”
Like Cooper, McGirr pursued artistic studies, earning a degree in graphic design and print management from the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York. Ultimately, he became bi-coastal, bopping between New York and Bay Area advertising and branding gigs. Then came what he calls, “The Great Unpleasantness of the Financial Adjustment”—otherwise known as the Great Recession. He left for Europe, where he pursued another passion. “I was staying on farms and learning, refining my cooking talents,” McGirr says. Next came Atlanta, where a friend from his advertising days asked him to cook for celebrities; he signed non-disclosure agreements. The work took off.
“Cooking for these families of significant and opulent means, and for these celebs and all of that, provided me a platform for spending the majority of my time basically going around the region, working with the farmers that were very similar to the subsistence farmers that my parents introduced me to as a child,” he says.
After four years, McGirr tired of Atlanta’s congestion. He chose Greenville. Here, he found his future husband, Travers Scott, director of Graduate Studies at Clemson. Here, too, he found a run-down building on Laurens Road. He took the building’s name, Feed & Seed, but didn’t get the property. Then he found The Commons, a stretch of buildings in the planned 22-acre City Park, and future home to Feed & Seed.
The non-profit, now three years old, is designed to be an all-encompassing hub, to include a Bacon Bros. café; a demonstration farm and community garden; wholesale and retail to neighborhoods, schools, and restaurants; educational programs; and consultation for farmers, consumers, and industry.
“I’m a pretty darn good facilitator,” he says without a hint of arrogance. “I’m a producer. What I used to do is exactly what I’m doing now, whether it was a $21 million budget to sell people sweater sets for Ann Taylor or whether it is to introduce squash blossoms to people in the Upstate as a delicious summer treat.”
Mary Hipp, chair of Feed & Seed’s six-member board, says: “Have you met Mike? How could he not be a game-changer? Mike’s ability to get the right people to the table to have the right conversations happen is impressive. Simply, he is a powerful convener.”
And like Meyer and Cooper, McGirr understands that the future of Greenville rests in ground.