My dad told me an interesting story recently about how his Halloween night began unusually quietly. While in past years my parents’ house would be inundated with trick-or-treaters as soon as evening came, this year Halloween began without any visitors.
As he investigated the cause for the quietude, he realized that he had forgotten to put his porch light on. Sure enough, as soon as the light came on, children recognized the house as a place where treats might be obtained, and they soon came in droves.
We seem reluctant to admit as a community that the same type of cause-and-effect applies to area growth. When you trumpet your city as one of the most livable in the country — and market yourself as a premier tourist destination with excellent weather, world-class restaurants, and natural amenities — it should not come as a surprise that people will want to move here in large numbers.
Yet even as we seek to lure more visitors, more investment, and more jobs to our area, we seem offended when people want to relocate here. We often hear the lament that Charleston is becoming another Atlanta or Myrtle Beach, but we do not recognize the tacit support we give to our leaders in making that growth happen.
One of the lessons I learned from a class I once took in urban politics is that municipalities will either grow and thrive, or they will shrink and die. One need only look at several Rust Belt cities to see what a city looks like on the wrong end of that growth continuum.
A look at our Census numbers shows that the Charleston area is steadily growing, and that it has been for some time. In July 1990, Charleston County alone had 295,631 residents. In July of this year, that number had grown to 348,046. That trend will assuredly continue as companies relocate here and more visitors move here, both direct results of our elected representatives’ aggressive promotion of our area nationwide.
Faced with an increasing number of residents, our local municipalities have limited options: either they can grow outward (sprawl) or they grow more concentrated (increased density). The recent condo-fication of downtown Charleston is an example of this dynamic, where multiple family units now occupy spaces that were once vacant or single-family residences. The battles played out over I’On in Mt. Pleasant, every other development in Awendaw, or Poplar Grove in Charleston County are also examples of how the area has tried to accommodate growth, while meeting considerable resistance.
Fighting against growth and for Charleston to stay the same is a popular cause that will help many candidates to get elected. Once elected though, the reality is that if those same candidates do not allow their city or town to grow, nearby municipalities will, cutting off the possibility of growth. Those candidates will soon realize that their municipalities need revenue to survive, and that revenue usually only comes in the form of more tax-paying residents or tax-paying businesses. This is a lesson that Charleston has learned well, and that North Charleston is similarly learning, much to the benefit of its residents.
Market forces will continue to drive the increased development of our region. The question moving forward is not whether or not there is going to be development, but rather what kind of development it is going to be.
The sooner that responsible citizens recognize this distinction and become more involved in the planning process, the less schizophrenic we will become. We need to be working with our most dedicated public servants to enhance our area rather than working against them.