Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is running for a 10th term. We’re nearly a year away from Election Day, but the response you’re likely to get from any Lowcountry political observer is the same we’ve received talking about Riley’s re-election with folks: “It’s not if, but when.”
The mayor released a video message to supporters Dec. 13, unofficially launching his campaign for the November election. The three-minute announcement centered on the issues he’ll tackle over the next few years.
“I want to focus especially on bringing more jobs to our community and strengthening our economy, addressing our drainage and infrastructure challenges, making our schools the best they can be, and making Charleston an even more safe city,” the mayor says.
He may be looking to the future, but fortunate coincidences and savvy decisions in 2010 have put Riley in a good position to make the inevitable even more inevitable. And we’re not just talking about refusing that bong hit from Miley Cyrus or deciding against sending that embarrassing top secret e-mail to foreign ambassadors.
10 Flagship 2
In early 2009, in the throws of the economic recession, Riley announced Flagship, a high-tech incubator that would provide startup space on the peninsula for entrepreneurs. Eighteen months later, the city touted the program’s success in bringing new capital investment and high-paying jobs downtown. The average wage at a Flagship company is $79,000, with more than $5 million in payrolls created by current and former companies housed at the site. This year, City Council approved expanding the site to support larger tech companies. The end result is fresh life for two long-abandoned commercial spaces on East Bay Street and a model in smart investment that has been emulated by other municipalities, business owners, and nonprofits.
9 High-Speed Rail
With state and federal funding already driving progress in neighboring states, South Carolina’s lack of vision on passenger rail travel was evident when Washington began mapping out high-speed travel routes. The best the Palmetto State received was a potential Upstate stop between North Carolina and Georgia, with no mention of the coast. Riley took the reins and requested federal money to study a route heading from Savannah to Florence, with a key stop in Charleston. The move appears to have lit a fire in Columbia for a statewide effort to make South Carolina more than a pit stop in future rail funding.
8 Free Dash
Traffic management and parking have been a challenge on the peninsula, and providing free trolley service on three downtown routes has offered a short-term fix. Funded with $360,000 the city collects in tourism-related fees, the new program provides easier travel for the city’s guests and, more importantly, downtown’s commuters. The program will face renewal, and likely offer evidence of success, just as real campaigning begins next summer.
7 Two Feet, Two Wheels
Riley and peninsula leaders were focused on more than just busses and trains this year. The city co-sponsors Second Sunday on King Street, an event that closes the shopping district to cars. Customers get a bit more room on the normally crowded sidewalks, and restaurants can offer limited on-street dining. The mayor also announced plans for improved bike access in West Ashley and continues to press for a safe route over the Ashley River to connect the popular greenway to the peninsula.
6 Aquarium and Dock Street
If there has been an albatross around Riley’s neck, it’s been the financial burden of the South Carolina Aquarium. In its 10th year, the aquarium paid off its $12 million debt and launched plans to freshen up exhibits and expand with a popular 4-D theater experience. The city hit another milestone when the massive $10 million Dock Street Theatre renovation ended with the opening of the 2010 Spoleto Festival USA.
5 Mary Clark’s Exit
For the third time, Riley is leading a legal challenge against the Town of James Island’s right to incorporate. As James Island mayor, Mary Clark had been an outspoken foil to Riley. She vowed she’d serve until the town was safe or until the voters decided to support someone else. In May, they decided to support someone else. New Mayor Bill Woolsey never campaigned on cuddling up to Riley, but he promised to work with the town’s neighbors on mutual issues, like planning and road maintenance. The two municipalities are still in court, but it’s a much quieter battle under Woolsey.
4 Port Support
Some would argue Riley spent valuable political capital this year with his staunch support for the State Ports Authority and its downtown cruise business, but the mayor is likely to point to a mountain of concessions, including the planned redevelopment of the Union Pier property with more access to the waterfront. The mayor has also recently put his weight behind efforts for a $379,000 federal grant that’s considered the next step in a larger project to deepen the harbor and grow port business.
3 Promise Neighborhoods/Meeting Street Academy
With other regional leaders and nonprofits, Riley led efforts on two fronts to improve schools. The Promise Neighborhoods initiative targets four low-performing public schools in struggling communities with literacy programs and increased parental involvement. The effort lost out on a lucrative federal grant, but there’s already $1.5 million in local investment over the next three years. And the city closed this year on a $4.75 million deal for a site to house the private Meeting Street Academy, a nonprofit program that seeks to offer a high-quality education to children from impoverished downtown neighborhoods.
2 No New Taxes
Fees and revenues were down in 2010, while operating costs for police and fire equipment and staffing continued to rise. But the city cut corner after corner to come up with a $145 million spending plan that met the city’s needs without a tax increase. The mayor recognized the city may have cut a little too much on some programs, so expect Riley to argue on the campaign trail that he made tough decisions.
1 Gaillard Auditorium
The high-profile unveiling of the proposed $142 million Gaillard Center should be considered the soft launch of Riley’s 2011 campaign. After multimillion dollar rehabs of Memminger Auditorium, City Hall, and the Dock Street, Riley presented a large rehab and expansion of the nearly 50-year-old Gaillard Auditorium. Private donations are expected to cover half of the cost for an improved performance space, expanded exhibition hall, and new city offices.