Two powerful political forces clashed Tuesday, squeezing the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce in the uncomfortable middle.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey are each pushing for the business organization to locate its new, permanent headquarters in their city.
A site that Summey proposed off Remount Road was the front-runner until Riley recently offered the chamber a spot at the yet-to-be-built Magnolia project in the Charleston Neck area.
Summey was caught off guard, and on Tuesday morning he stormed out of the chamber's offices — after threatening to form his own chamber of commerce, according to several members of a chamber committee who were present.
Summey, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.
The chamber, which represents about 2,100 local businesses, was expected to pick the site of its new offices at its monthly board meeting Tuesday. It decided to defer its recommendations amid the controversy.
"It's very uncomfortable to be put in this position between two strong and respected mayors," said Daniel Kassis, who leads the chamber's site search committee.
The chamber has been looking for a new headquarters since selling its Charleston office at 81 Mary St. and moving into temporary quarters in the former Baker Hospital in the Neck area of North Charleston about four year ago.
The search committee came up with a list of criteria for the new site: It needs about 20,000 square feet of space, ample parking and a location within a few miles of the intersection of U.S. Interstates 26 and 526.
Throughout the search the group
evaluated almost two dozen sites. Over time, a 3-acre site near Remount Road and I-26 pitched by North Charleston became the front-runner, Kassis said.
The chamber's task force was leaning toward that site until two weeks ago, when local developer Robert L. Clement III approached the group with an alternative.
Clement is helping develop the Magnolia project, a proposed neighborhood in the Charleston Neck area that will contain a mix of shops, offices, hotels and up to 4,400 homes.
He proposed that the chamber buy the top floor of a planned four-story, 80,000-square-foot office building overlooking the Ashley River that will have a rooftop terrace. The city of Charleston is considering purchasing the middle two floors for its own use.
"It's really a world-class site," Riley said.
The project would cost about $4.3 million, but Clement, who is part of a group that owns the Baker Hospital property, offered to waive the chamber's rent in that building. The savings would amount to about $417,000, the amount the chamber would pay in rent between the time it agrees to the site and the time it moves in, according to Charleston's proposal.
Task force members said the cost was similar to the estimate for the Remount Road site. A copy of North Charleston's proposal was not available Tuesday.
The chamber originally had hoped to be in its new location by 2010, but that is now up in the air. Its current lease expires in 2009, but it has a three-year option to extend it.
The bid by Charleston upset Summey, who abruptly left the chamber's offices Tuesday before the board meeting started.
Riley stayed for the entire meeting, even as the chamber board went behind closed doors for more than an hour to discuss the competing proposals. When the meeting was reopened to the public, chamber officials said they would continue searching for a new site.
Members of the search committee said afterward that it was unclear what the next move would be.
The municipal squabbling between Charleston and North Charleston goes back decades.
Both cities sought to build a coliseum and a convention center within their boundaries, but both projects eventually went to North Charleston. And Charleston's surprise annexation of Daniel Island in the early 1990s triggered an incorporation war with North Charleston for property along the Cooper River.
Though both mayors are acting on behalf of their city's best interest, the arguments aren't healthy for the Charleston area, said local restaurateur Dick Elliott, who is on the chamber's search committee.
"Each one is working hard and diligently and aggressively to advance the interest of their constituency, and they should be applauded for that," Elliott said. "The chamber's challenge right now is not merely to find a building, but to cause the elements of this community to understand that they need to collaborate."