January 13, 2022 (Source: Greenville Journal) – Hank Didier knows from experience the importance of protecting the environment.
As an Orlando attorney who tried cases involving the Takata airbag failures and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Didier spent more than 20 years as a successful environmental and consumer product safety attorney.
Leaving behind that success to take a more active role in environmentally sustainable development, he founded the Didier Group, a private equity investment firm. Protecting the environment has been a lifelong commitment, so when Didier and his wife purchased a vacation home in western North Carolina, they took an interest in the region — especially the Upstate — and saw opportunities to make an impact.
Didier says Greenville caught his attention because of projects like the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail and Falls Park that showed the commitment of residents and elected leaders to prioritize green space and amenities that encourage active living. Preserving green space is something the people and leaders of Greenville seem to get, Didier says, which is one of the main reasons he chose the area to pioneer the development of privately funded public parks.
“It’s important to balance the need for development with preserving the environment that is a major draw for the thousands of new residents moving to the Upstate,” Didier says.
Protecting green space
Didier’s vision of developing privately funded public parks is centered on two projects — the 240-acre Preserve at RiverWest on U.S. 123 west of downtown Greenville and the 120-care Preserve at Lakewood on Lakewood Drive in Mauldin.
The first step he took was to protect both properties from development through establishing permanent conservation easements. Didier says without these protections, he is confident the properties would have inevitably been converted into housing subdivisions.
“I focused on Greenville because I felt they were doing a better job of being green than any other community I was aware of,” Didier says. “That’s community-mindedness. That’s civic thinking.”
But, he says, the challenge going forward will be balancing that commitment to green spaces with the need to develop housing for the thousands of new residents moving to the area every year. If a concerted, sustained effort to preserve property from development is not made now and in the years ahead, Didier says Greenville may see the kind of unchecked growth that has transformed Orlando and communities across the Southeast.
“Ten years from now there’s not going to be as much green space as people would have thought possible,” he says.
Forging a new path
Didier says state and local governments simply do not have the funding, much less the political will, to preserve property from development and set it aside for public good. That lack creates an opportunity for private companies and citizens to play a role in sustainable development projects like parks and preserves.
Paul McCormack, director of parks for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, agrees and says this type of public/private collaboration is a growing trend across the state.
“It really can be beneficial for everybody…but it’s a very complicated puzzle,” McCormack says. “As a parks guy, I’m really excited to see this.”
With an eye to providing a template for other individuals and groups to follow for similar projects, the Preserve Parks model being developed by Didier and his team has three goals:
Protect a designated property from development with a permanent conservation easement
Establish a baseline annual operating budget for each park to understand what level of funding is required to keep the park open and available for public use.
Establish a foundational giving mechanism that will provide sustainable financial support for each park over the long term
Ultimately, Didier envisions being able to transfer ownership of the parks to the appropriate county or municipal government to become traditional publicly-owned parks.
Didier says as his team learns what is required to operate each park, they aim to establish a model that can be readily reproduced. He envisions more properties being added to Preserve Parks — the branding his group has established for these projects — and is looking in the Travelers Rest area for a possible future project.
“I have faith that we will have opportunities to share this,” Didier says. “Just doing what we’re doing builds momentum.”
McCormack says efforts like Didier’s privately funded public park model are taking place all over the state and play an important role in preserving land for future generations.
“Conservation-minded individuals have an opportunity to make a long-term impact in preserving natural spaces,” he says.
Meeting a need
Didier says the two parks in the system are already meeting a need.
The Preserve at RiverWest occupies the property of the former Millstone Golf Course that went defunct more than a decade ago. The property is bounded on one side by Tanglewood Middle School, and Didier says this proximity has led to one of the park’s first and most impactful uses.
Because the property retains more than six miles of paved cart paths, it is naturally suited to walking and biking. Students from the school now use the park three days a week to ride bikes, and Didier says access to the park from the school was created to make this easier.
The Preserve at Lakewood in Mauldin is also focused on giving young people an outdoor space to be active. The park is also home to the Sustainability Education Center where interactive displays provide information about clean energy and renewable resources.
Didier says the center features off-the-grid solar and wind power sources that will teach young people and the general public about the environmental benefits of renewable energy.
The city of Mauldin has been an invaluable partner in getting the park up and running, says Didier, through providing support such as public safety at running events that have become a regular feature at the property.
As the Preserve Parks model matures and evolves, Didier says he hopes it will inspire new generations to both enjoy the outdoors and find ways to preserve the environment. He adds that, in a sense, they have only one core mission.
“The idea is to provoke thought,” he says.
For more information about the parks, visit thepreserveparks.com.
Similar work elsewhere in S.C.
Butler Conservation Inc., founded by New York philanthropist Gilbert Butler in 1988, has worked with local partners to preserve 16 miles of river frontage of the Black River north of Charleston.
With nearly 3,800 acres of buffer property along the river, the Black River Cypress Trails project will in the coming years develop facilities to promote recreational activities like kayaking and hiking for residents and visitors of nearby communities like Kingstree and Andrews.
Preserve Parks at a glance
The Preserve at Lakewood
Occupies 120 acres within Mauldin’s city limits at 220 Lakewood Drive
Is home to the Sustainability Education Center which seeks to educate visitors about clean energy and environmental sustainability
Features more than 2,000 feet of frontage along the Reedy River and incorporates a number of trails
Has been primarily used thus far to host races and running club events
The Preserve at RiverWest
Occupies more than 200 acres of what was formerly the Millstone Golf Course on U.S. 123 west of downtown Greenville
Retains more than six miles of paved trails and the parking lot associated with the original golf course
Is adjacent to Tanglewood Middle School, whose students use the park’s paved paths to ride bicycles three days a week
Has been primarily used thus far for bicycle riding, walking and hiking