The City of Charleston was mentioned all over the national headlines this past year. The news was not always good. Two racially charged murder trials took place right across the street from one another in downtown Charleston. Down the street from that, an African-American television reporter from Charlotte was also called the N-word, again making national news. Some commentators across the country used these instances to portray Charleston as a racially intolerant city. But despite these high profile cases, the biggest story in Charleston was not a murder trial or chance sidewalk encounter, but rather the end of an era in municipal leadership. The year 2016 was the first year in 40 years that Joseph P. Riley, Jr. was not mayor of Charleston.
Recognizing the closing of this chapter of transformative leadership for the city as a noteworthy event is not meant to minimize the impact of what took place in North Charleston and at Emanuel A.M.E. However, Mayor Riley’s retirement, and the transition to his successor, John Tecklenburg, will undoubtedly have an even greater impact on Charleston’s immediate future going forward, particularly in terms of city governance.
Mayor Riley was one of America’s longest serving mayors, and by any measure, one of its most successful. During his time in office, he literally changed the landscape of Charleston through his singular vision, despite a number of high profile battles with political opponents. Because of his perseverance, Charleston is now celebrated as one of the top tourist destinations in the United States and arguably one of the most livable cities in the world. Waterfront Park, Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park, Charleston Place Hotel, and the South Carolina Aquarium all stand as monuments to the lasting changes brought by Mayor Riley’s leadership. While many might have disagreed with some of the former mayor’s more controversial decisions, most would accept that his leadership was very beneficial to the city of Charleston.
Fast forward to the present and the post-Riley era, and it’s a fair question to ask, “Where do we go from here?” Mayor Riley’s tenure embodied some very clear objectives which he pursued with dogged determination while leading the city. In no particular order those were: 1) The expansion of Charleston’s tax base and territorial size through aggressive annexation policies; 2) revitalization of downtown Charleston including the establishment of King Street as a shopping and entertainment center; 3) securing access for the public to the waterfront as embodied by Waterfront Park; and 4) obtaining additional streams of revenue for the city of Charleston through accommodations and hospitality tax.
Mayor Riley also sought to narrow the racial divide that existed in the city prior to his taking office, and was a forceful advocate for affordable housing. Brian Hicks’ excellent, recent biography on the mayor outlines the arc of his political career, and does so within the context of Charleston’s recent history. Beginning with the MUSC hospital strike in 1968, the biography shows how Mayor Riley built his reputation from a junior legislator in Columbia to a hands-on mayor that hit the ground running once he took office. The flurry of significant activity from the beginning of his tenure is noteworthy.
Anyone would have had a difficult time filling such big shoes, and thus we should be gracious before criticizing Mayor Tecklenburg. But one year into his inaugural term, it’s also fair to ask: “In what direction does he plan to take the city? And when will he begin to demonstrate the leadership to take us there?” The two most notable promises of his campaign, to enact a hotel moratorium and to oppose the construction of the proposed Sergeant Jasper, ended with a whimper. Maybe those weren’t the best political battles to start off with. But what of the completion of 526 or the creation of a bike lane across the Ashley? Has there been any visible evidence that these projects are being moved forward in any meaningful way by City Hall?
Every new officeholder deserves a honeymoon period, but if the city is to continue moving in a positive direction, it will have to begin with some concrete leadership from the mayor’s office. The failure thus far to lead on key issues has been problematic.
We all want to give the new mayor time to grow into his new role, but if that does not begin in 2017, it may mean the end of the honeymoon period and more pressing issues down the road.
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