As a lifelong resident of the Charleston region who has studied this project thoroughly, I would like to offer another perspective on the proposed Gaillard Civic Center design. What is proposed for the Gaillard is no different than what has happened to the renovation of 18th and 19th century houses/buildings in Charleston for years. Today’s occupants of the aforementioned have come in and restored those houses and offices with 20th century materials (i.e., new kitchens, new bathrooms, new telephone and computer technology centers, etc.).
With the Gaillard, the City of Charleston and a group of private individuals have decided to renovate that 1960s building to bring it up to date with 21st century technology and uses.
The massive, 2,700-seat performance hall, which is acoustically inadequate, is being replaced with a modern-day, 1,800-seat, intimate, acoustically perfect performance hall that can be used by various arts groups as well as corporations who want to host stockholder meetings; by MUSC for medical seminars; by the College of Charleston for educational/performance events (for its School of the Arts, its School of Communications, its Business School, etc.)
Other events like the duck calling contest for the Southeastern Wildlife Expo or lectures at the Charleston Fashion Week or demonstrations for the popular Charleston Food and Wine Festival will be enhanced experiences. Furthermore, the new facility will be complementary to the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, which has been a resounding success for the region.
The Gaillard will be another arrow in the quiver of our Charleston Regional Development Alliance sales team and the Trident Chamber of Commerce to help attract and retain business, industry and cultural diversity in the region.
The hall and the new park will be exciting new places for our children from throughout the region to be exposed to cultural events and daily play. Children will not have to go to New York City or other cultural hubs for exposure to excellence. The acoustics in this hall will be as good if not better than Carnegie Hall.
The children who attend Buist Academy will have a spacious new outdoor play area that they can use daily. Children will be exposed to world-class architecture and other physical and botanical attractions. Neighbors will have access to a beautiful new passive park that complements other city parks.
Other benefits that will inure to the project are the consolidation of city services, the buffering of the Ansonborough neighborhood from noise and traffic from East Bay and Calhoun streets (parking for city employees will be relocated to the aquarium garage), a garden park that will offer the occasional banquet/display/outdoor symphony space that will update the antiquated exhibit and performance spaces that currently exist.
From a financial standpoint, the project makes immense sense to the taxpayer. The taxpayer cost will be $71 million, which is half of the total cost. The other $71 million for the project’s total $142 million cost comes from private funds. City Council has already authorized expenditures up to $19 million. Fourteen million dollars have already been spent — half public and half private — to get the project to where it is after four years of study and over 100 public meetings.
The City of Charleston already owns the land where the Gaillard is located thanks to the foresight of former Mayor J. Palmer Gaillard, Jr. Citizens of multicultural backgrounds have moved back into a neighborhood which was considered by some to be blighted in the 1960s.
The current administration and City Council have taken the opportunity to present the citizens with a very insightful, visionary, all-inclusive project that will enhance the neighborhood, the region and its citizens for many years to come.
If, as some have suggested, the site were to be changed the city would lose $40 million that it is using for the Crosstown drainage (the city negotiated the arrangement specifically regarding the Gaillard project with the county by extending the current Tax Increment Financing District). Also the city would have to buy other land that it doesn’t own and that cost would be between $30 million and $40 million for the same amount of land.
The city would also have to build a new parking garage which would cost another $12-$15 million at a cost of $25,000 per space. The city would lose the $14 million that it and the private supporters have invested in the current project. The private group has indicated that its $71 million is designated only for a renovation of the Gaillard.
So by my calculations, the city is getting new administrative offices that will make it easier for people to do city business because of the centralization of offices, a world-class performance hall with accompanying event space, and a beautiful new passive park/playground that will enhance the quality of life for the neighborhood and all citizens of the region at a taxpayer cost of $71 million.
To do an alternative plan would cost the taxpayers between $270 million and $300 million depending on its location.
The current Gaillard Auditorium can be and should be enhanced just like our historic buildings.
It’s time for us to pull together as a regional community and together create the “new” Gaillard Civic Center and make this project the true all-purpose regional Civic Center that it has been designed to be.
John M. Rivers Jr. is president of Rivers Enterprises.