You can tell how someone feels about Charleston Mayor Joe Riley by the way they say his name, the way that R comes out. Among supporters, “Riley” swings off the tongue like a baseball sailing for the wall at the stadium named after the nine-term mayor. Critics are more likely to growl that R like they’re standing in the batter’s box, choking the bat so hard it could snap in their hands.
Considering 2011 will likely bring a 10th term for Joe Riley, it goes without saying that Charleston’s mayor has fans — lots of them. But he’s got his share of political opponents already shaking their heads at the prospect of four more years of Mayor Joe. Some are still outraged at the city response to the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire, which came months before Riley’s last election. Others are smarting from the increased cruise ship traffic downtown.
In new City Paper interviews, City Councilman Tim Mallard and former mayoral candidate and frequent Riley critic Marc Knapp both discussed their beefs with the Holy City’s top politician. Neither has ruled out a run for mayor in 2011.
Mallard’s beef with Riley is about economic development. Mallard suggests the city was outside-looking-in while the region secured the new Boeing plant and lured Southwest Airlines to the Lowcountry. “We’re just lucky,” he says.
For Mallard, his chief concern is looking for high paying jobs in Charleston. Local students and those returning after graduation can’t find anything but concierge work, Mallard says.
“I’m concerned that the only jobs in our city are tourism jobs that pay the minimum wage or a buck more,” he says. “Our tourism tax base is not cutting it … Charleston needs new and better businesses that aren’t hotels and restaurants.”
The problem, Mallard argues, is that we haven’t recruited industries. “Why aren’t we chasing after better jobs?”
Mallard is calling for an economic development committee that would coordinate with regional recruitment efforts. “We’re going to get a seat at the table, even if I’ve got to do it without the mayor,” he says.
A commercial real estate agent, Mallard says he and other City Council members can use their experience to attract new business.
“The mayor is a lawyer,” he says. “He doesn’t know how to draw industry, how to create jobs. He’s a good salesman, but we’ve got to be able to speak the language and compete with other cities and other states. What we need is a strong economic development effort to actually get the businesses to our sites.”
When employers do arrive, Mallard says the city needs a more welcoming approach.
“The city and the mayor have focused too much on what a building looks like,” he says, arguing that the city’s various design boards “do nothing but keep business away from Charleston.”
Mallard says the city tells people what they have to do with their businesses and their buildings, instead of welcoming them with open arms and tax incentives. This type of micromanaging is chasing off new businesses that can’t meet the city’s requirements and fulfill their own needs an affordable way, he says. “Riley has made getting a permit in Charleston a nightmare, so businesses are staying away,” Mallard says. “We’re not getting new jobs. We’re not getting an increase in our tax base.”
Representing communities west of the Ashley River, Mallard also argues that Riley’s priorities have left the suburbs with scraps — with maybe a sports field here and there.
“It’s always been about downtown for this administration,” Mallard says. “We’re looking for real answers to real problems, which are drainage and transportation. We’re not getting it.”
We asked Knapp about the first time he had a beef with Riley. He pauses for a moment before saying he’s unsure if his memory is that good.
A utilities contractor, Knapp was first concerned about the Charleston Water System’s operations. Those complaints led to questions about water lines going to development projects supported by the mayor. That was nearly two decades ago. Now, Knapp has a long, ongoing list of municipal beefs, mostly revolving around spending priorities.
“I started figuring out there was all this touchy-feely stuff. Joe was giving away money left and right,” Knapp says.
Riley has said things are looking up for 2011. Standing before City Council last week, Knapp again rang the alarm that development likely won’t pick up in the new year. That will keep property tax collections and other municipal revenues down.
“He’s in denial,” Knapp says of Riley. “He’s not willing to face the situation.”
The mayor has pointed to millions of dollars in spending cuts. But Knapp argues they haven’t cut deep enough, pointing to community programs like the Office of Cultural Affairs, which operates city facilities like the City Gallery and programs like Piccolo Spoleto. Knapp says these are the kinds of things nonprofits and private businesses should be financing, not the city.
“Joe just won’t get back to the essentials — fire, police, stormwater, and trash,” Knapp says. “The rest needs to get cut.”
Like Mallard, Knapp is also worried about the city’s continued struggle to address infrastructure problems.
“Riley likes the glitz of a new building or a renovation. That’s why our stormwater system sucks. That’s why our roads suck,” Knapp says. “He’s got a real problem with infrastructure, especially drainage. He doesn’t understand it. He doesn’t know how to fix it.”
That said, Knapp believes federal support will swoop in to save the day, repairing the stormwater system and preserving Riley’s reputation.
There are enough voters out there to unseat Riley, Knapp says, but a campaign against the mayor would need a purse full of cash. It would also require a lot of batting practice.