The world falls in love with Charleston Mayor Riley slowly shifted the city’s tax base

When Mayor Joe Riley took office in 1975, King Street was largely deserted. During the past 40 years, the city’s burgeoning tourism industry helped change that dramatically. The city wants to keep charming visitors while maintaining quality of life for residents.

When Joe Riley first was elected mayor in 1975, Charleston’s tourism scene was sleepy but showing signs of stirring.

In the following four decades, it not only woke up but moved up as the city created new attractions and hubs of activity ever farther up the historic peninsula.

As Riley leaves office, Charleston has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s best cities to visit, taking the No. 1 spot on several lists in recent years.

Less well-understood perhaps are the major efforts the city made during Riley’s tenure to turn back projects the mayor considered “a lot of junk” — or the city government’s ongoing effort to regulate tourist activity more aggressively than any other city in North America.

“I didn’t think way back then (in the 1970s) that Charleston would be No. 1,” Riley said. “But I’ve always said we aspired to be a great city — a city committed to excellence in what we did and how we treated people.”

The nation’s Bicentennial celebration in 1776 renewed interest in the nation’s and Charleston’s history, while the nationally televised Miss USA Pageant was held in Charleston for the first time in 1977, the same year that Riley scored a coup by landing Spoleto Festival USA.

The next year, the pageant returned, and the first Cooper River Bridge Run was held — an event that ultimately would draw up to 40,000 participants.

“It seemed all of a sudden, Charleston had been discovered,” Riley said.

Julian Buxton, founder of Tour Charleston LLC, grew up in Charleston but left in the early 1980s because the city felt “economically dead.”

He returned in 1994, eventually began a career as a tour guide and watched the industry grow exponentially.

The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition began in 1983, while Charleston Place and the S.C. Aquarium opened their doors in 1986 and 2000, respectively. Buxton noted that Helen Hill, the then-newly appointed director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, helped turn that agency into a marketing force “while transforming the utter disaster of Hugo into media and marketing gold.”

Other festivals, cruise ships and new museums also fueled the rise of visitors here, as did the city’s growing reputation for dining and shopping.

The city’s popularity peaked in recent years with its winning the top spot in Conde Nast’s readership survey of best cities in the United States, and even the world, though it since has fallen from the top global spot.

“The most important value was the pride it gave the citizens of Charleston,” Riley said of the top rankings, “because this is their city.”

Finding apples-to-apples figures to illustrate the growth is challenging.

But state figures hint at the massive growth. A report commissioned by the S.C. Department of Parks and Tourism found Charleston County ranked second in the state as far as tourism activity in 2002.

That year, the county saw $1.1 billion in tourist spending — 16.5 percent of the state total, the report found. Tourism accounted for 18,000 jobs in the county.

Last year, the county saw $2.1 billion in tourist spending — almost 18 percent of the state total and accounting for 22,100 jobs.

Kitty Rentiers, former owner of Gray Line Tours, saw the city’s tourism scene change from a pre-Riley era when visitors were welcome to wander into downtown residents’ gardens — if their gates were left open — to one where that was no longer the case.

As the numbers rose, a few residents even talked about putting black tarps over their homes to fight back.

“The changes that I have noticed around Charleston are really how good everything looks everywhere now,” Rentiers said. “You can hardly find a place where tourists would not want to go.”

The same month Riley was first sworn in, an article in The News and Courier gave an update on the city’s equine sanitation scene.

“Horse diapers are out,” it declared. “Radio-controlled manure picker-upers are in.”

The story noted the city’s protracted horse diaper debate “probably has brought more attention to Charleston than anything since the beginning of the Civil War, gaining notice on national television news, newspapers across the country and even a spoof from Howard Cosell during a Saturday night television show.”

Aside from the horse diaper debate, Riley saw little if any concern about tourism’s negative impacts at first.

Riley grew up in an era when only Harry Waagner operated carriage tours, with a small operation based at White Point Garden.

As the money got better and more competitors moved in, the city over time not only moved the carriage stands up to the City Market but also devised a system that randomly channeled them into three different zones so residents along the city’s most iconic streets would get a break.

Under Riley, the city passed its first tourism management plan in the late 1970s, then updated it twice, as well as created a commission to oversee the details.

Tour guides must be licensed. Tour buses must have their paint scheme approved by the city, and they only may drive down certain city streets, depending on the vehicle’s size. Walking tours are capped at 25 people. A plan was enacted to protect carriage horses on the city’s hottest days. And all paid tours were required to be off residential streets by 5 p.m.

Moped, duckboat and pedicab rentals were banned — sometimes before entrepreneurs even got a chance to start such a business up.

“No one else was doing it in the country, which was really interesting — and great,” Riley said. “We had to do something no one else has done.”

Rentiers, who served on the first city panel, said the new rules took a long time — and hundreds of hours of discussions — to complete.

“People in tourism weren’t happy. The people who lived in the historic district weren’t happy,” she said, “but that is always the hallmark of a good compromise — that nobody liked it.”

Charleston’s efforts to manage tourism under Riley extended well beyond regulating the tours themselves.

The city also undertook a concerted effort, through zoning and through its own building program, to move the center of tourist activity steadily up the peninsula from White Point Garden.

That’s where tour boats to Fort Sumter departed during Riley’s childhood, and the National Park Service planned to relocate them to a new visitors center at the western end of Broad Street.

The agency even had a model of the facility under Plexiglas — indicating its pending reality.

But Riley and others felt that was too close to the city’s residential neighborhoods — and too far south — so the city ultimately worked the levers of the federal government to get the Park Service to abandon that plan and instead buy a 4-acre site on the Cooper River, at the eastern end of Calhoun Street. The property also would serve as home for the new S.C. Aquarium.

It relocated the city’s visitors center to a renovated former railroad hub north of John Street.

“I always thought Charleston Place was a positive tourism management tool because it moved the center of tourism gravity north,” Riley said.

Later, the city turned its attention to regulating where hotels could go — steering them away from waterfront sites and toward King Street, where visitors would add more to the street’s bustle. It also limited the size of new ones south of Calhoun Street to no more than 50 rooms.

“Visitors are very positive,” Riley said. “They’re interested in the history, and they can add greatly to the economy. But it’s our duty to decide how they should use the city to benefit us.”

The one tourism-management fight that Riley was unable to see through — much less win — is the future of cruise ships downtown.

Many issues are at play, including whether the State Ports Authority’s new cruise ship terminal should be built at its former Union Pier, whether the city should pass a more enforceable limit on the number of ships here, whether cruise ship passengers should be taxed and whether the city or state should require ships to plug into the electrical grid while in port.

Tensions existed for a decade but peaked around 2011, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation was asked to place the city on its 11 Most Endangered list because of the ships here.

Trust President Stephanie Meeks wrote that while the trust isn’t opposed to the cruise ship industry in general, it was concerned about the size and frequency of the ships visiting Charleston. “Without reasonable limitations, these impacts threaten the very character of this historic place,” she wrote.

Riley fired back that he was “beyond dismayed” to receive Meeks’ letter, saying “there is no proof that the level of cruise activity that is currently planned for Charleston is or will be harmful for our city.”

The Trust compromised, not adding the city to its Most Endangered list but creating a new “watch list” instead. Meanwhile, cruise opponents also would pour money into fighting Riley’s 2011 re-election bid, but he won anyway and jabbed back by repeatedly claiming at his victory party that he was “cruising to victory.”

Since then, the future of the ships will fall to the courts, state and federal regulators — and mayor-elect John Tecklenburg.

Riley said he is not frustrated by the cruise ship stalemate.

“I would get frustrated at something if I haven’t worked hard enough on something,” he said. “I know I couldn’t have worked harder on that.”

As Riley leaves office, the city seems certain to continue to wrestle with how to balance the commercial pressures of tourism with residents interested in their quality of life.

One of the most eloquent exchanges along these lines came in 1987, shortly after Charleston Place had opened its doors.

Elizabeth Hamilton, daughter of the Charleston artist and author Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, wrote an op-ed about the cost of more tourism to the city.

“It will, granted, be very nice to have King Street revived,” she wrote. “But at what cost to the dear old city? Has it all been overdone?

“Will the conventioneer, the one who comes for a packaged conference, or the tired traveler who comes in search of Charleston’s peace and quiet know whether he is in Charleston or Atlanta? ... The old city, hitherto the haunt of the exploring tourist, could well become only a backdrop for the activities of the Omni.”

Riley, then in his 12th year in office, responded that the tourism industry “is not our enemy, it is our friend.

“But even with friends, we give no blank checks. Careful tourism management and controlled growth, tough zoning decisions and a passionate commitment to maintain the diversity of life and uses in our city must be continuing commitments for the citizens of Charleston.”

“We can have a city that is blessed with a tourist economy and, at the same time, does not lose its beauty, ambiance and individuality if we don’t let down our guard. This is a challenge for us and will be a challenge for those who follow us each and every year.”

“The challenge is to make sure that changes and developments in Charleston are always on our terms and no one else’s.”

If there’s an irony at work here, both Buxton and Rentiers said, it’s that the more Charleston succeeds at managing its tourism — ensuring the city’s visitors help enhance residents’ quality of life and don’t erode its ambiance — the more people will want to come.

“Charleston has survived terrific wars and disasters for 345 years. It will survive the perils of its success as a tourism destination, too,” Buxton said. “Looking back at it from the perspective of where Charleston was 40 years ago, I see this burden of success as a glorious gift of a ‘problem.’ ”

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.