Riley in full sprint as finish line nears

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley described his waning weeks in office Friday by using the metaphor of a relay race. He’s running at a full stride now and on Jan. 11 he’ll pass the baton to Tecklenburg.

Last January, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley laid out some goals for his final year in office — an ambitious agenda that he admitted could extend beyond his time in City Hall.

Among his goals were continuing his fundraising efforts for the International African American Museum, bringing more development to West Ashley, completing the Gaillard Center, developing a plan for the city’s burgeoning entertainment districts, and pushing for the completion of Interstate 526.

On Friday — just days removed from a runoff election won by businessman John Tecklenburg over state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis — Mayor Riley said he had accomplished many things during his four decades at the city’s helm.

But some things seem certain to be left undone — projects and priorities he will pass along to Tecklenburg.

“I’m busy at this moment,” Riley said Friday. “I’ll always be busy.”

In the next several weeks, Riley will focus on preparing the city’s 2016 budget, daily city matters, and meeting with Tecklenburg about the transition, among other things.

Riley described his waning weeks by using the metaphor of a relay race.

He’s running at a full stride now, he said, and on Jan. 11, he’ll pass the baton to Tecklenburg.

In that January interview with The Post and Courier, no one had any idea what a tumultuous year 2015 would be. Riley will tell you that the low point of his four decades in City Hall came on June 17, when a white supremacist walked into a Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church and shot and killed nine people.

But there are many high points, Riley said, including the openings of Waterfront Park, Charleston Place, the South Carolina Aquarium and Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park.

His biggest unfinished project is raising $75 million for and building the International African American Museum, which is planned for the former site of Gadsden’s Wharf on the Cooper River. The museum is vital to filling an important missing piece in the city’s history, Riley has said. And it would conclude his work to bridge the city’s racial divide.

So far, he has brought in about half of the money. He said he will continue fundraising after he leaves office, and still expects construction to begin in early 2017. He’s made pitches to a lot of private donors, he said. And he’s confident he can reach his fundraising goal. “Deadlines are powerful things,” he said.

Tecklenburg affirmed his support for the International African American Museum when he met Friday with Riley for the first time after being elected.

Riley said Tecklenburg even mentioned a fundraising lead during their meeting. “It was a great prospect,” Riley said, “and it was his idea.”

Riley also will leave the West Ashley area still seeking an economic development boost — and with the final leg of Interstate 526 still on the drawing board.

Those were two of the biggest issues in this year’s Charleston mayoral contest, and Tecklenburg detailed his approach to both.

With West Ashley, Tecklenburg said he will try to create a new finance district that will let the city use new property tax income there to make improvements to commercial corridors. And he also vowed to steer a portion of the city’s restaurant and hotel taxes toward improving Savannah Highway, St. Andrews Boulevard and Sam Rittenberg Boulevard.

Tecklenburg has called this part of the city “a red-headed stepchild,” but quickly added, “I like red hair.”

The city launched a West Ashley Economic Development Strategy, a long-term plan to improve the West Ashley’s retail scene by redeveloping the struggling Citadel Mall and making other moves, but progress has been limited.

Tim Keane, the city’s former planning director and an architect of that plan, left this summer to take a job in Atlanta.

But I-526 could be a bigger challenge because state and county government have taken the lead there.

Tecklenburg has suggested the city could take over the project, but it has not built a major highway before — nor is it clear how to make up the $300 million shortfall for a project that recently was estimated at as much as $725 million.

“I don’t think it’s dead,” Tecklenburg said just a week before the Nov. 17 runoff, “but it might be on life support.”

One of the highlights of the mayor’s last year was October’s grand opening of the Gaillard Center, the most expensive building project in the history of Charleston city government.

Riley took pride in showing off the details of the $142-million makeover, which culminated with an opening concert by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“Every civic building should be built with an extraordinary commitment to beauty and excellence, because every citizen owns it,” Riley said during the opening.

He called the new center “this generation’s gift to the future.”

And Riley also oversaw the completion of Higgins Pier, a new public space where the West Ashley Bikeway ends at the Ashley River, as well as the city’s acquisition of Longborough Park.

The city also took a major step in resolving the growing conflict between residents and upper King Street’s increasingly lively bar scene.

Earlier this fall, the city of Charleston moved ahead with a three-month pilot project to allow bars in the peninsula’s entertainment district — which includes portions of Meeting, King and East Bay streets and the Market area — to stay open an extra hour, without serving alcohol.

The effort, called “soft closings,” was designed to make the streets safer by keeping late-night bar patrons from pouring out into the city’s streets at the same time. The change was just one part of a larger plan to better manage late night activity in the city.

Five King Street businesses have joined the effort.

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The city also created a special zoning requirement for all late-night operations that fall within 500 feet of areas that have residential zoning — a requirement that regulates trash collection, noise and parking.

Riley has made a list of topics about the upcoming transition that he has to talk to Tecklenburg about before he leaves.

But he only got through part of it at the first formal meeting between the two. “It seemed like about 10 minutes, but I guess it was an hour,” Riley said of their meeting. “We’ll have many other sessions.”

City Councilman James Lewis, who has held his seat since 1995, said he also is sure Riley will meet his goal and the African American Museum will be built.

Riley did a great job as mayor, Lewis said. “Charleston was a dying city,” when he took office, he said. “He brought life back to it.”

But, Lewis said, he hopes the next mayor will bring more affordable housing to the city. Many people can no longer afford to live here, he said.

The only area in which he thinks Riley fell short was in hiring more black employees, especially for higher-level positions, he said. “More could have been done on that.”

Councilman Bill Moody said he expects Riley during his final weeks to do what he always has done — roll up his sleeves and work.

One night last week, Moody said, Riley had three speaking engagements.

And he doesn’t expect any immediate dramatic changes when Tecklenburg takes over. Everything Tecklenburg said as he campaigned for mayor indicates his goals and values are pretty much in line with the direction the city is headed.

Riley said he hasn’t had much time to reflect on his long career as mayor, or to make detailed plans for the future.

He’s not sure what he will do Jan. 12, he said, but he has no regrets about choosing not to run again. It was the right time to step down.

He might start preparing to teach classes at The Citadel, his alma mater, and the College of Charleston. He’s been asked to teach at both places, he said.

“But right now,” he said, “I’m working for the city of Charleston, not The Citadel or the College of Charleston.”

Robert Behre contributed to this report. Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.

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