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Charleston is turning 350. Here's what to expect during the yearlong celebration.

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East Bay and Broad.jpg

Charleston has been making plans for its 350th anniversary celebration. The result is four signature events spread from April through November of 2020. One will take place on Broad Street from East Bay to King Street, which will be blocked off to set up 350 tables for a Community Unity celebration. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Charleston has some experience marking milestone birthdays.

Its 250th was celebrated with three days of festivities, complete with a pageant that reenacted the settlement's founding. 

For the city's tricentennial, which kicked off with a 9 a.m. 300-gun salute followed by a parade and a ball, the festivities continued for more than a month. Eight days of the activities were named for each of the Lords Proprietors, the individuals who were granted a royal charter to found Charles Towne.

Now, in 2020, for Charleston's semiseptcentennial — that's half of a 700th anniversary, or septcentennial — the celebration will last all year. 

Some of the events are still taking form, and others aren't known yet. In addition to four signature events the city is planning, local groups have been encouraged to host their own. All of the city's annual draws, from Spoleto to SEWE, will have 350th components. 

City Councilman and 350 Commission chair Peter Shahid remembers being in the tricentennial parade with members of Charleston's Lebanese community. A native Charlestonian, Shahid's grandfather moved from Lebanon to Charleston in 1899. 

Over the about year and half of planning for the 350th commemoration, Shahid said he's been thinking about those festivities 50 years ago and felt something was missing.

There was more to the story than what was being presented then, and this next anniversary was a chance to set a new tone for the half-century ahead. 

"Here's an opportunity to tell the full story of Charleston," Shahid. "What was Charleston's real place in history?"

State parks in South Carolina hit record revenue numbers (copy)

A historical interpreter makes a fence from scratch at Charles Towne Landing. File

Founders Day, but bigger

When organizers — which includes city staffers, a commission and a steering committee that meets monthly — started mapping out the anniversary year's events, their starting point, at least, was easy.

For years, Charles Towne Landing, a state park in West Ashley that marks where the English settlement was originally founded, has celebrated with a Founders' Day Festival. 

Next year will be no different, but the scale has gotten bigger. At a recent presentation to City Council, it was described as "Founders Day times 100."

The park's manager, Rob Powell, said the event could be the site's second largest visitation day ever, only after its opening day in 1970. 

Attendees can expect reenactments and 17th-century demonstrations, but the educational components of Founders Day will extend to periods well beyond the settlement's founding.

Powell said the site may bury a time capsule that would be opened when Charleston reaches the four-century mark in 2070. 

The park will also debut a new exhibit that will put its archaeological work on display. Right now, a shelter is being built over a spot where archaeologists found what's believed to the oldest surviving architectural remains from the English settlement: a tabby floor made sometime around 1690. 

The dig site is usually uncovered during a few field days each year, but the exhibit will allow visitors to see the site year-round. 

The Transat bakerly

The 60th-anniversary edition of The Transat, a solo ocean sailing race, will start in Brest, France, and end in Charleston. Provided/OC Sport

Atlantic connections

Other 350 events will begin much further away.

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In mid-May, around 40 skippers will assemble in Brest, a port city in northwestern France, to complete a 3,500-mile voyage across the Atlantic. And, for the first time ever, they'll set their course to Charleston Harbor. 

The Transat, the world's oldest solo ocean sailing race, has traditionally set its finish line in the northeast United States. Most years, it's ended in Rhode Island, but both Boston and New York City have also been ending points. 

This year, race organizers were looking to move south and hoped to coordinate the Transat's finish with the start of Spoleto, Charleston's annual performing arts festival that kicks off May 22. 

The race itself will celebrate its own milestone upon reaching Charleston. Founded in 1960, the Transat will turn 60. When the very first Transat race was run — it started as a contest among British sailors who wanted to see who could cross the ocean first, solo — the trip was completed in 40 days. 

Now, with skippers sailing on top-of-the-line vessels, it could take the winner as few as eight days. People can expect waterfront celebrations and popping champagne as the first boats come in, Shahid said. 

cofc_diversity_campus02.jpg (copy)

The College of Charleston, which is striving to diversify its campus population, is celebrating its 250th anniversary in 2020. Provided/Mike Ledford/College of Charleston 

The race finale also coincides with the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Conference, hosted by the College of Charleston's program of the same name. Over three days in mid-May, scholars and students will gather at the college — which is also marking a major anniversary, its 250th — to discuss the maritime Atlantic world and Charleston's role in it.

Sessions will likely start with snapshots of 1670, then 1770 and each century after, eventually looking to 2070 and issues like sea-level rise that port cities will continue to reckon with. 

CLAW has hosted previous conferences, but the 2020 event has been described to potential participants as the "biggest, most ambitious conference" it has attempted. In addition to academics presenting their research, representatives from museums and historic sites and leaders of Atlantic port cities are expected to attend. 

Music at the ballpark

July's signature event will be "about as American as it gets," Shahid said. Think baseball, fireworks, food vendors and live music. 

It's being described as a three-day music and arts festival and should include a wide array of acts and displays. Details about who will perform and when are still being decided, Shahid said, but organizers hope to showcase some local talent. 

The event will overlap with Independence Day, and activities and performances will be split between the Riverdogs stadium and Brittlebank Park. 

'The longest table'

The year's finale event might be the most ambitious, Shahid said. Organizers envision "the longest table," starting at the Old Exchange Building and extending for several blocks down Broad Street, full with families sharing a meal. 

The city plans to block off Broad Street from East Bay to King streets. Food vendors would be set up, and people would be able to walk into nearby buildings, such as Charleston City Hall and St. Michael's Church, and learn about Charleston history.

The details of how the tables will be assembled aren't determined — the street could be filled with several hundred tables or they could be lined up as one long table — but the concept remains the same. 

"We're taking the idea of family and community and breaking bread together and doing it as a city," Shahid said. "This is going to be, I hope, a moment to set the table for the next 50 years."

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and aerospace. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter and co-hosts the weekly news podcast Understand SC.

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