Summey on I-526 (copy)

Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey talks to reporters Thursday, Jan. 10, on Statehouse grounds after the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank approved a new contract to extend Interstate 526. Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, and Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, also talked about their push for the project. Seanna Adcox/Staff

Charleston County Council quietly reelected Elliott Summey chairman last week, but the vote sent a pretty loud message.

For the first time in more than a decade, there was no dissension … and no competition for the county’s ranking leadership role. That hasn’t happened since the days of Tim Scott, and is probably a sign that Summey's doing exactly what council wants.

Which is, cleaning up a few major league messes.

A day after his reelection, Summey was taking meetings at the County Council's offices about potential new ways to alleviate Lowcountry traffic. But he's also dealing with a lot of unfinished business from what he calls the county's best year of work.

“I’d put it up against any other year,” he says. “Just what we accomplished on 526 alone was monumental.”

Summey’s return to power — he was previously chairman in 2015-16 — began in late 2018, after he recovered more than $400 million the state long ago promised to help finish Interstate 526. Council figured that if Summey could pull off that feat, perhaps he could salvage a few other boondoggles.

The results speak for themselves.

  • Council found a buyer for the Charleston Naval Hospital, a chronic money pit that has cost taxpayers more than $33 million. The courts forced the county to buy the building back from developers who hadn’t exactly delivered on their promises … but had the foresight to file suit, and lay blame, first. The pending owners plan new apartments for a notoriously under-served area of North Charleston, which the county hopes will spark a wave of redevelopment in the area.
  • The county’s Palmetto Commerce Parkway recycling center is finally on track and scheduled to open in August. The facility will be larger than initially envisioned and cost less than anticipated.
  • The county bought a Remount Road shopping plaza to give the Disabilities Board a new home … and allow council to sell its Morrison Drive property for a mint.

Council is also preparing to sell its three-acre Charleston Center and relocate the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services to property near the Naval Hospital and a planned bus rapid transit hub.

The idea is to consolidate county services under fewer roofs, unload a lot of valuable downtown Charleston land and make up for losses on the Naval Hospital. The DAODAS offices, in the heart of downtown’s medical district, and the Morrison Drive property could fetch tens of millions. The county already has made $5 million selling a right-of-way to Laurel Island developers.

But critics have complained that these days the county is preoccupied with property, and shouldn’t be a developer.

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Summey agrees.

“We don’t need to be in the real estate business,” he says. “That’s why we’re not developing it — we’re selling it. We’re going to put some of this property back on the tax rolls for the first time since the 1960s.”

Summey will juggle these myriad projects this year while also running for reelection. He expects to have opposition, mainly from conservation groups — which he says he doesn’t understand.

He points to the conservation easement the county secured for Boone Hall Plantation last year, a deal he estimates will keep thousands of cars off Long Point Road. And, on his suggestion, the county will provide the federal match for a bike bridge over the Ashley River.

Summey 2020 is more diplomatic than he's ever been. He’s courted former adversaries and allegedly even mended fences with state lawmakers he fought for that 526 money.

But he still can’t resist pointing out the hypocrisy of his critics. The same people who say the county can’t spend half-cent sales tax revenue on 526, because it wasn’t on a voter-approved list, now want council to subsidize the Low Battery seawall reconstruction.

Which, Summey points out, isn’t on any voter-approved half-cent sales tax list.

That's as close as you'll come to seeing the old Summey this year. The chairman is quieter, more circumspect — and all business. And his business, he says, is conservation, reducing traffic and economic development.

“We’re going to do it all — 526, the intersection of Main Road and 17, the Johns Island pitchforks and bus rapid transit,” Summey says.

And that's how Summey, and the rest of County Council, plan to quietly settle all their outstanding business ... and send a very loud message to their critics.

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