Behind his massive desk this month, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, sleeves rolled up, detailed the 37 to 50 projects he wants to complete or move forward in his final year at the city’s helm.
Some of those tasks — like the International African American Museum — are the capstones of long-term efforts, passions he’s worked on through much of his career.
Others, such as reviving the economy in West Ashley, weren’t problems when the 32–year-old Riley stepped into City Hall in 1975.
Still others are things he simply wants to bring to a close, like legal issues stalling Union Pier redevelopment, finishing the renovation of the Gaillard Center and ensuring that the stalled contract for the controversial completion of Interstate 526 gets signed.
Earlier this month, Riley, 72, talked about the projects laid out in note pads, lists and stacked piles of papers across that office desk.
He plans to be as busy on Jan. 11, 2016, his last in office, as he was on his first day. Then he’ll turn over the job to the next mayor.
“It’s a continuum,” he said.
Riley said he had “no Number One priority,” but the first thing he mentioned, and the first item on his hand-written list, was to make significant progress on the International African American Museum, which is planned for the former site of Gadsden’s Wharf on the Cooper River. The museum is vital to filling an important missing piece in the city’s history, Riley said. And it would conclude his work to bridge the city’s racial divide.
In the spring, he will bring plans for the building to the city’s Board of Architectural Review for initial approval. And he’ll have a plan for the kinds of exhibits and programs the museum would offer, for which he will gather input from the public.
He also will continue to work on raising the $75 million needed to complete the project. “I work on that in one way or another every day,” he said.
Riley initially ran for mayor on a platform of healing the city’s racial divide. The injustice of the Jim Crow South was holding the city back, he has said, and Charleston couldn’t reach its full potential if it didn’t improve race relations.
But his early efforts weren’t popular with much of Charleston’s old guard, who gave him the pejorative moniker LBJ, or Little Black Joe.
The Rev. Joseph Darby, a longtime civil rights activist and first vice president of the Charleston NAACP, called Riley’s progress on race relations “a mixed bag.”
Riley opened lines of communication for dialogue on racial issues, he said, and he provided opportunities for cultural awareness such as launching the MOJA Arts Festival. But the number of high-ranking minority staff members employed by the city is low, he said, as is the number of minority contractors the city hires for its construction projects.
But Darby thinks the museum is an excellent idea, and Riley is the person to get it done. “I think construction needs to begin on his watch,” Darby said. “I don’t think the next mayor will go through with it.”
Riley also will guide the completion of a plan to better manage the peninsula’s entertainment district, especially on upper King Street. That plan, originally proposed as a ban on new establishments that serve alcohol past midnight, stirred the ire of many members of the city’s food and beverage industry.
Riley said he wants the city to have a mixed-use urban center, not a party district like Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Beale Street in Memphis.
Elliott Smith is an attorney who represents BACE, a group composed of 25 local businesses opposed to the ban and the revised plan for a one-year moratorium. “We questioned the process and factual foundation on which they were based,” he said.
Smith now is a member of the city’s Late Night Activity Review Committee, which is providing input to city leaders as they develop the management plan.
He wants the final plan to be one that benefits the late-night economy, he said. And he wants to let city leaders know it should embrace the needs of people in their 20s and 30s. “There’s a significant young professional population building in Charleston,” he said.
Riley said the management plan will cap his efforts at reviving King Street, which started with the 1985 opening of Charleston Place, an upscale hotel with shops and restaurants that extends from Meeting to King streets between Hasell and Market streets. Many city and business leaders credit it with igniting King Street’s revitalization.
Riley remembers looking out the window of a ground floor office on King Street during a planning meeting for Charleston Place. During the hour-long meeting, only three people passed by, he said. That’s in contrast to today, he said. None of the retail space on King Street south of Calhoun is unoccupied or unleased, Riley said. “I don’t think there’s a main street in America that has that.”
Riley said he put a lot of energy over the years into improving the city’s downtown because it desperately needed attention. And 40 years ago, “West Ashley was relatively new and robust and the inner city was old and declining,” he said. “You deal with the sickest patients first.”
But many West Ashley residents think their suburban part of the city has become worn and dog-eared in recent years, and they’re clamoring for more attention.
Riley said the city hasn’t ignored West Ashley. It has made improvements there including building the Bees Ferry Recreation Center and making improvements to the West Ashley Greenway and Bikeway. It also has worked with neighborhood groups on safety and other issues.
But West Ashley needs an economic development boost, Riley said. “The commercial infrastructure was built over the last 50 years. But it’s due for some revitalization work.”
He and Tim Keane, the city’s planning director, have recently launched the West Ashley Economic Development Strategy, a long-term plan to improve the retail climate in West Ashley and to attract more commercial redevelopments in the area. And he wants to make progress on that plan this year.
Redeveloping struggling Citadel Mall is at the center of that plan, he said.
The mall, the largest enclosed shopping mall in the region, opened in 1981 and has struggled to draw business and shoppers in recent years for numerous reasons.
“It needs repositioning,” Riley said. “Citadel Mall was a regional mall, but it should be West Ashley’s downtown.”
Riley said he has a lot of other projects he wants to see finished including: Higgins Pier on the Ashley River and the renovation of Gaillard Center, which has been delayed until late summer. He also would like to see to it that legal problems stalling the redevelopment of Union Pier are cleared up.
And he continues to work behind the scenes to push for the completion of Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands, even though that’s a Charleston County, not a city, project. He has been working with the county, the state Department of Transportation and the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank to help move along the stalled contract process so construction can begin.
Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey, one of council’s strongest proponents of the highway extension, said Riley’s championing of the project is critical to it moving forward. “His influence is great.”
Riley, a Democrat, has been able to help bring in money to the city from the Republican-dominated Infrastructure Bank for large construction projects including I-526 and improving drainage on the frequently flooded Septima P. Clark Parkway, also known as the Crosstown, Summey said. “I don’t think anyone in this region has grasped what we’re losing.”
Riley said he’s working with the Infrastructure Bank, trying to get money a year or two early for next phase of the Crosstown drainage project. That phase involves building an underground tunnel from Coming Street to the Ashley River.
Riley would continue to rattle off projects he wants to start or complete in the next year if he had the time. But his staffers move him along. There’s almost always someone waiting outside his office door for the next appointment. “A great city, like a great corporation, is never at rest,” Riley said. “It’s never finished. I have so much to do.”
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.