Melvin and Dollie Younts are warm and cheerful examples of extraordinary philanthropy. This Fountain Inn couple has spent a lifetime building a fortune and then giving it away to do so much good for the causes near to their hearts. And during the process, from starting as a young married couple with barely two nickels to rub together to settling into their sunset years with millions of dollars going for their favorite causes, the couple has remained humble, gracious and downright funny.
The latest cause to attract their attention is the Fountain Inn Center for Visual and Performing Arts. The Yountses visited The Greenville News recently along with city officials from Fountain Inn to discuss an exciting intersection in the city’s history: The Yountses and their heartfelt philanthropy, and a historic city that is restoring itself in part by a strong emphasis on the arts and cultural events.
History will reflect that few people have done more for Fountain Inn during their lives and certainly well into the future than Melvin and Dollie Younts. Their latest gift of $1.5 million will provide about half of the funds needed to transform the Fountain Inn Center for Visual and Performing Arts into a first-class small performing arts facility that greatly enhances the city’s life and contributes immensely to its economic development.
The $1.5 million will pay for structural improvements to the center that has been the catalyst for revitalizing Fountain Inn. The building will be renamed the Melvin and Dollie Younts Center for Performing Arts. Fountain Inn officials, aided by Younts and his persuasive powers, are raising another $1.5 to renovate the performing arts center by adding an impressive lobby, an orchestra pit, and new, more comfortable seats. About $1 million of the funds raised will go for what’s called a “fly system” that will greatly increase the ability to bring shows to the center that require sophisticated staging by allowing the center to move sets on and off stage.
Fountain Inn Mayor Gary Long said of the performing arts center, “What this is going to do is set us apart. It will set us apart from smaller venues.” And he added, “There’s a lot for small towns to give. People are coming to Fountain Inn (because) it’s a destination place. What Melvin and Dollie are doing is outstanding.”
Van Broad, Fountain Inn’s economic development director, said he approached Melvin Younts about making a sizable gift to the renovation of the performing arts center because he knew of the couple’s deep love for the community and exceptional philanthropic outlook on life. The couple has given away millions of dollars in recent years in large part of colleges for academic and athletic programs. Younts was a leader on the Greenville County School Board for 23 years and his wife taught school in the couple’s early years.
“I’m glad we could do this,” Younts said of the gift. “Fountain Inn has meant so much to us.” When the couple moved to Fountain Inn, Younts was a new attorney who was quickly embraced by the town, and his wife was a school teacher. Their fortune came from Younts willingness to take calculated risks in the stock market and his success in doing so.
The performing arts center that is the beneficiary of their latest major gift was an old school built in 1939 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It was a high school until 1957 and then was an elementary school until 1998. Younts went to the high school when it was new, his wife has been a substitute teacher there, all of their children went to elementary school in the building, a daughter has taught in the school, and Melvin Younts has been on stage in the facility, once as a student and more recently in a community production.
“This is home,” Younts said. “We’re going to go all out to help it and make it grow. I think this is something beneficial to the people and beneficial to the town.”
Fountain Inn has discovered what cities much larger realized decades ago. A vibrant arts community energizes a city and attracts economic development. Broad credits the mayor and city council for deciding five years ago to make the city an arts and cultural destination, and even more so for sticking with that strategy when the bottom fell out of the economy.
Five years after the new emphasis took hold, the city is seeing powerful results. Vacant buildings that once dominated the downtown area now are occupied. Ticket sales have risen in this town of 8,000 people from 6,000 in the first year of the performing arts center to 20,000 last year. New restaurants are popping up to accommodate the evening visitors, and more surely will do so as the renovated center is able to handle even more sophisticated shows.
Fountain Inn has benefited from solid leadership, and it has a winning strategy that has well served the city of Greenville: Get people downtown. Provide them with inspiring entertainment. And enjoy the success that follows.