Before reality TV became popular, there was a popular fictional television show (WKRP in Cincinnati) that began with the phrase “Wake up, Cincinnati!” Well, today Charleston residents are not on a fictional reality television show. Charlestonians are in a world of complex reality that no elected official in this state wants to deal with head on.
The city of Charleston has identified approximately $1 billion worth of necessary drainage/sea wall work that needs to be done to make sure that its citizens are safe from disastrous flooding and that the vibrant historic city and its surrounds stay intact. The big question is who is going to pay for that work?
At the moment no one has a definite answer; therefore, the studies that have been done over the last 30 years have basically been put into an inactive file cabinet — with some minor efforts to address the drainage/sea wall problems having been implemented. I think it’s time to get the rest of those engineering plans out of the file cabinet and have city planners develop a comprehensive realistic strategic plan that will fix these drainage/sea wall issues within the next 5-7 years. That’s correct — the next 5-7 years.
So how is this goal to be accomplished? First, the State Infrastructure Bank should assist by allocating $400 million that previously was earmarked for the extension of I-526 (other traffic remedies are realistic). Second, the state should sell off at least half of the 60-acre Union Pier property owned by the State Ports Authority. The property is used primarily as an impervious asphalt parking lot and point of embarkation/debarkation for Carnival Cruise Line, whose dockage can be moved up river or to Mount Pleasant. The other half of the property should be converted to grassy parks and pervious recreational area to mitigate impervious surface runoff, which has been created by unrelenting hotel, apartment building and office construction.
I am told that the sale would raise approximately $500 million based on the comparable sale of the SPA property to Lowe Enterprises for a hotel. Because of Charleston’s contributions to the welfare of the state, the money from the sale of that property should be put toward the $1 billion needed for flood control.
The sale also would put the property on the city tax books, raising an additional $150 million a year in tax revenue. This is approximately 75 percent of the city’s current budget.
Furthermore, Berkeley, Dorchester and Charleston counties should increase their hotel accommodations tax at least 50 percent with those funds earmarked to support infrastructure for the region. That way visitors to the region will pay their fair share to support the other infrastructure needs that are necessary to manage a future 6-10 million visitors per year.
All areas of the region are important; however, most tourists and residents identify the Charleston peninsula primarily with the historic district where the majority of debilitating flooding occurs. After the drainage/sea wall issues are stabilized, property taxes can be lowered for everyone in the region. Beautification projects can be enhanced. Quality of life for everyone in the region can continue to thrive without constant fear of the ramifications of “nuisance flooding” and additional environmental changes.
The time to act is now. If not, according to scientists, Charleston’s peninsula is going to continue to have consistent “nuisance flooding” as well as be exposed to catastrophic storms.
Charlestonians and other South Carolinians are living in a dream if they don’t think that flooding, rising sea water levels, and intensified storms are not going to be part of their “new normal.” To delay implementation of a well-conceived mitigation plan is foolhardy. Failing to manage our future is to leave our city, our citizens, our businesses, and our state in a highly vulnerable position to be the victims of a modern-day self-made Armageddon.
I am encouraging all of our local, regional and statewide citizens to join together to meet “the enemy” — rising sea levels, flooding, severe weather — head on as one unified body whose sole aim is to salvage the city that so many people love and need. Wake up, Charleston — the future is now. We are not in a dress rehearsal.
John M. Rivers Jr. is a Charleston business executive.