Rooms for growth? City seeks public feedback about hotel growth on peninsula

A new hotel is going up on lower King Street downtown.

Many downtown Charleston residents, workers and business owners have an opinion one way or the other about the peninsula’s expanding hotel industry.

This week, they’ll get a chance to express them.

As part of an in-depth, 90-day study of the downtown lodging market and its impact on the area, the city is holding a “public listening session” to gather feedback about the issue Tuesday night.

“I just want it to be open and inclusive and give everybody the opportunity to have their say,” Mayor John Tecklenburg said Thursday.

The debate over whether historic downtown Charleston is adding too many hotel rooms is one of the first big quality-of-life challenges facing the new mayor, who took office in January.

On the development side, activity is showing no signs of slowing. Four downtown hotels opened last year on the peninsula, adding several hundred new rooms, and at least another four are under construction. And according to city figures, at least 11 properties with a combined 763 rooms already have the necessary zoning approvals to proceed.

The latest wrinkle is the possibility of the State Ports Authority office building on Concord Street being redeveloped into a waterfront hotel with as many as 225 rooms. The SPA announced last week that it selected the owner of Wild Dunes Resort as a potential buyer for its prime property.

The industry’s sudden growth spurt downtown prompted Tecklenburg to propose a temporary moratorium on new lodging projects.

“I just feel like we need to ask the question: When is enough enough in terms of hotel rooms on the peninsula?” Tecklenburg said late last year.

City Council never took up his proposal. Instead, it voted to have staffers conduct a deep-dive study.

As part of the analysis, city officials have met with representatives of the hotel industry and neighborhood groups, Tecklenburg said. It also hired an economist to run the numbers and a traffic expert. The report is expected to be presented to City Council in May.

“It’s a pretty comprehensive look at the whole matter in a pretty short time,” Tecklenburg said.

As with most new real estate developments, one of the key concerns is increased traffic congestion. Tecklenburg said he’s also worried about variety.

“In order to have and continue to have a diverse economy, you want a mix of uses,” he said. “You can’t have a hotel on every corner and have a diverse economy.”

Even so, he said, the city recognizes that the hotel business is “an important part of our economy.”

At the same time, the industry has to co-exist with others, Tecklenburg said.

For decades the accommodations industry has been a big employer downtown and beyond, and it’s a huge tax source for the city and the state, drawing millions of free-spending visitors each year. Hotels also help provide a customer base for other money-making ventures, from restaurants to tour guides to retailers.

“There’s this balance you have to try to reach,” he said.

Dan Blumenstock, chairman of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and director of operations for Lowcountry Hotels, said he thinks there is a “good balance right now.”

“I think that if you talked to me as a hotelier and you talked to many other hoteliers in town, we’re very cognizant of the community, and I think the community is also very cognizant of the tourism community. ... I really do think we work well together,” he said.

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Blumenstock also thinks it’s a good time to look at the impact of the industry.

“I think that’s a very good decision ... to at least take a look and see all of the different things,” he said.

He added: “We want to make sure that there is a good balance between livability and also for tourism ... I don’t think it’s an ‘either/or.’ I think it’s an ‘all-of-the-above.’”

Some residents are alarmed about the industry’s rapid growth in downtown Charleston.

Susan Bass, president of the French Quarter Neighborhood Association, said she’s concerned about how new hotels and other visitor-driven developments will affect residential areas near the city’s tourist district.

“I’m worried about the entire development process impacting ... especially something like the French Quarter and Ansonborough who are very, very small neighborhoods and both of us have commercial activity as well as residential activity,” Bass said. “That’s part of what makes it appealing, but it also then requires some stewardship of the neighborhoods.”

Not surprisingly, her neighborhood group favored the mayor’s moratorium idea.

“When it was clear that ... would not be supported by City Council, we then were very enthusiastic about the 90-day study, but cautioned that we felt it had to be encompassing,” Bass said. “It has to be a really holistic view not looking just at one hotel at a time but the impact of all development, all hotels, the tourism carriage traffic and numbers and just ... everything that’s on our street.”

Someone from the French Quarter Neighborhood Association will be attending the event, Bass said.

Reach Allison Prang at 843-937-5705 or follow her on Twitter @AllisonPrang.