BALOG COLUMN: Astle ready to admit being wrong on former naval hospital
It takes a big man to admit when he's wrong.
But North Charleston Councilman Ed Astle is prepared to do just that if the development deal with Chicora Gardens LLC for the former naval hospital and the nearby former Shipwatch Square shopping center is successful.
The council votes Thursday on the plan.
Astle was not only the only councilman to vote against the city's purchase of the naval hospital in October.
He said at the time he was afraid the city was buying a “money pit.”
He had good reason to be concerned, given that the government was spending $1.2 million a year just to keep the building heated and cooled and staffed with two security guards.
“The $2 million to buy it, we kind of had that in the piggy bank,” Astle said. That's true; it came from the city's $19 million fund balance. But the idea of signing on for an annual $1.2 million bill rubbed Astle the wrong way, and rightly so.
But with a successful vote Thursday and the potential to close on the sale within 90 days, “we might be getting lucky and getting rid of it really fast,” Astle said.
Some folks frown on this kind of government intervention. North Charleston has some great revitalization projects of which to be proud, like Park Circle and East Montague. But the Shipwatch Square-formerly-Pinehaven shopping center has been a blight for too long.
And with the death of the Noisette project, there needed to be something to jump start the process. Credit the city leaders with having the tenacity to do the right thing.
From concept to reality
The concept plan, preliminary though it may be, hits many right notes. It would have a transit stop, along with a pedestrian overpass for safe passage across Rivers Avenue.
And of course, what may be the most important piece of the puzzle, a grocery store for an area that's been lacking one for seven years.
A strong emphasis on parks and walkability would make it a true public space and a destination, a focal point, something else that would be a real asset for the community.
And it's basically a wash for the city in terms of what the city invested and what it would make from selling the properties.
Astle thinks that's as it should be.
“The city should not be making money doing development,” he said. “My feeling is that government's part in development is to make sure the infrastructure's there and the taxes are reasonable.”
Maybe the concept plan is too good to be true. A community garden is shown on the plan, as is something called Poet's Way, and even a sculpture garden.
Astle's not all-in just yet; he's still waiting for some more specifics, a time table, the nuts and bolts of the plan, the costs and so forth. But he sounded optimistic Monday.
“It's going to be great if this idea flies.”
It's not a quick fix. But if it works out the way the concept plan proposes, it should be a long-lasting one that the city and its residents can be proud of.
Reach Melanie Balog at email@example.com or 937-5565.