Last Tuesday, Charleston City Council voted 9-2 in favor of Mayor Joseph P. Riley’s plan to purchase the Sofa Super Store site on Savannah Highway.
The business burned to the ground June 18 in a quick-fire inferno thought to be started by an errant lit cigarette in the loading dock area. Nine Charleston Fire Department firefighters lost their lives. That’s about all the information everyone can agree upon. The rest is for the lawyers to sort out.
A report on the fire by a City of Charleston-commissioned investigative panel will be presented no later than May 15, but given Charleston’s strong mayor-weak council-style of governance and the fact that the city is picking up the tab for the report, it’s easy to understand why the public might have some doubts about the objectivity of investigators.
Since the tragedy, Mayor Riley has publicly referred to the site as “sacred ground” and declared his intention for Charleston to purchase the land for a memorial. There’s been a municipal election since that day, and one of Joe Riley’s staunchest council allies — Anne Frances Bleecker — has been replaced by Timmy Mallard.
Mallard and Councilman James Lewis cast the dissenting votes against Riley’s plan to spend $1.85 million to acquire the Savannah Highway commercial parcel.
According to The Post and Courier, Mallard said during the meeting, “I’ve taken a poll, and the people in my district don’t want us to spend $1.8 million to buy this site. It’s just the tip of the iceberg … Six months from now, we’ll be asked for $3-4 million to build a park.”
Lewis agreed, saying that improving the current fire department would be a better use of the funds.
Council members Robert Mitchell and Aubry Alexander voted for the measure after expressing doubts about the proposed sale.
Alexander commented, “In talking to my constituents, they want to know what we’re going to do with the site … I think we, as a council, need to answer that before we spend $1.8 million.”
Riley, visibly surprised by the opposition, said it was the intention of the City of Charleston to protect the land from commercial redevelopment. “The scope of this tragedy is of historic proportions. For the life of me, I can’t imagine anybody driving up on that property and ordering a Coca-Cola or a six-pack of beer or a piece of furniture or anything.”
It looks like Joe might be wishing he’d campaigned harder for ol’ Anne Frances.
Riley said the purchase would be in the form of a short-term loan initially and an extended note would be worked out some time next year. He planned to assemble a committee to discuss suggestions for the property which already include a fire station, a public park, and a church.
Councilman Wendell Gilliard was taken aback by the opposition, “When we first discussed, there wasn’t a ‘nay’ in the room. I just don’t get it.”
Well, Wendell, I tell you what’s happened: The shock has worn off.
Randy Hutchinson, brother of fallen Capt. Billy Hutchinson, told the P&C, “These men weren’t heroes, they were doing their job. It’s a shame that it occurred, but it’s not necessary to spend that kind of money on these nine men.”
I think the mayor’s judgement is obscured by grief, and he continues to react emotionally to the deaths of his employees. City Council needs to review this decision.
I would suggest that perhaps a referendum should be placed on this November’s ballot.
Charleston has experienced human tragedies of epic scale before. Mythologizing an on-the-job incident does nothing to serve the memory of nine firefighters who answered the bell and were killed in the line of duty.
Nor does it correct the institutional problems that contributed mightily to the heavy butcher’s bill of that midsummer’s evening.