Most speakers at Monday’s Charleston mayoral forum agreed the city has reached a fork in the road — several showed the same slide of two roads diverging — and they know which paths the candidates will choose.
The forum, sponsored by several nonprofit groups, brought about 150 people together inside a Francis Marion Hotel ballroom to highlight some of the big issues they want mayoral candidates to talk about this year.
“We are anxious about the future as you are,” said architect and downtown resident Whitney Powers, whose “If You Were Mayor” website helped set the forum in motion.
She also alluded to the departure after 40 years of Mayor Joe Riley, who is not running again. “The next mayor must fill the shoes of a vastly more experienced leader.”
Monday’s discussion ranged from West Ashley’s “identity crisis” to innovative ideas about the city’s flooding problem to public transportation and housing the city’s working poor.
It was not a typical political forum where candidates make their pitches and field questions. Instead, it tried to frame issues around the future of the city’s built environment, such as transportation, flooding, affordable housing and the relationship between the city’s suburbs and its urban core.
While filing in the mayor’s race doesn’t begin until August, several candidates already have launched campaigns in hopes of replacing Riley, who leaves office at year’s end.
So far, candidates include Charleston businessman John Tecklenburg, former City Councilmen Henry Fishburne and Paul Tinkler, state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis and current Councilman William Dudley Gregorie. State Rep. Wendell Gilliard and Ginny Deerin, who ran Riley’s last campaign, also are looking at a bid.
All but Stavrinakis and Gilliard attended Monday’s forum and spoke briefly, mainly to thank organizers.
Charleston never has elected a mayor who didn’t live on the city’s historic peninsula, but during Riley’s tenure, the city has annexed dozens of square miles, and now most of its voters live west of the Ashley.
Two speakers, Charlie Smith and Amy Fabri, outlined the opportunities the next mayor has to improve West Ashley and James Island, respectively.
And there was a clear tension between Fabri’s attack on the controversial apartment complex being built on Maybank Highway and S.C. Housing Trust Fund Director Michelle Mapp’s plea for more affordable housing in the city.
Bill Morrison, who was pushing his bike home Monday past the construction site for The Standard-James Island, the controversial apartment complex allowed by the city’s gathering place zoning, said one can look at progress “several different ways.”
“I’m disappointed with the overdevelopment of James Island” he said, but added he is glad for the employment it brings to the architects, developers, contractors and carpenters.
The event was backed by Charleston businessman John Winthrop, the Coastal Conservation League, Historic Charleston Foundation, Charleston Moves and the S.C. Community Loan Fund. Their representatives gave brief talks framing their take on the challenges and opportunities facing the city’s next mayor.
They also focused on infrastructure, housing and building, not mentioning other staple issues of mayoral campaigns, such as public safety, education, economic development and support for the arts.
Stewart Weinberg of Charleston suggested that organizers of future forums should try to draw a more diverse crowd. While the city’s electorate is diverse — about a third are minorities — Monday’s crowd was predominantly white.
The candidates did not respond in any depth to the discussion but tried to leave the audience with at least one memorable line.
Tinkler said while he was on City Council, it appeared that downtown residents were more organized and involved at City Hall. “I want to encourage everybody who is here who lives in West Ashley to get involved,” he said.
Fishburne said that during his time on council, he saw a lot of city planning that started from the top and flowed down. “What I see here was just the opposite,” he said. “This is an amazing civic exercise.”
Gregorie said voters who want to know where he stands should visit his website, while Deerin said the heavily used “fork in the road” analogy might not fit well.
“To me, it isn’t which path we take. It’s both,” she said. “In my view, the next mayor has to be a mayor who really brings us together and comes up with solutions that are innovative.”
Tecklenburg said he agreed that the next mayor’s job will be to execute the city’s many plans already on the shelf, adding, “I plan to be the mayor with the biggest ears to listen to you.”
The city’s election will be Nov. 3 with a Nov. 17 runoff likely.
Wade Spees contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.