January 28, 2009

Riley Offers Reassurance During Address

David Slade  /  The Post and Courier

Mayor says Charleston ahead of the curve in many aspects

Amid what's been described as the worst economy since the Great Depression, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley offered reassurance Tuesday about the city's financial health and outlined several initiatives to help local businesses.

"Charleston faces this crisis with assets that few cities have: fiscal strength, a splendid quality of life, a strong business climate, increased national prominence and more," Riley said in his 30-minute State of the City Address, which was broadcast live from City Hall.

Unlike the state government, Charleston has avoided budget and service cuts, making do this year with belt-tightening measures such as delayed hirings and meager raises for employees. In an objective measure of the city's financial condition, two weeks ago Standard & Poor's Ratings Services upgraded the city's bond rating to AAA, the highest of any city in the state, which reduces the city's borrowing costs.

Riley's lengthy address –- the printed version is nearly 4,000 words –- touched at least briefly on city achievements over the past year, ranging from the efficient management of basic city services such as on-time garbage collection (122 million pounds of it) to the creation of new parks and affordable housing.

Riley also praised the Police Department for a reduction in violent crime and a nearly 300 percent increase in arrests for drunken driving, which could be related to the city's 33 percent decrease in traffic fatalities. He called on residents to support his push for state legislation that would crack down on repeat offenders and stiffen penalties for gun crimes, and allow warrantless searches of those on parole and probation and deny bail to some repeat offenders.

The mayor began his State of the City Address with a nod to the election of President Barack Obama, who had mentioned Charleston in his acceptance speech. The mayor met with Obama in recent weeks to discuss a potential federal stimulus package that could fund infrastructure projects in cities.

The Cottages at Longborough, a 42-unit condo development for middle-income, first-time home buyers, is an affordable housing initiative mentioned by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley in his State of the City Address. Workers are finishing up the condos near Wagener Terrace, and buyers already have been pre-qualified by the city from a large waiting list.

"We are proud that in our city, where 300 years ago African citizens came in chains, as slaves, where the Civil War began, where as in the rest of the Southland, Jim Crow racial segregation was practiced, Barack Obama received a majority of our citizens' votes," Riley said. "Yes indeed, we, all of us, have overcome."

Riley said that while the federal government works on stimulus plans, Charleston will have an economic recovery plan of its own. He said the city will offer workshops aimed at helping existing businesses facing economic challenges, and a new resource center to support new businesses and businesses that want to relocate to Charleston. The plan also will include an incentive from the city's Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation to pay the business license fees for start-up companies involved in computer software, life sciences and medical devices, for up to two years. The city already has undertaken several initiatives to attract biotech businesses, including the creation of an "incubator" site for start-up businesses on Meeting Street in the Trolley Barn building, in collaboration with the South Carolina Research Authority and the Medical University of South Carolina. The city also is pursuing a massive project to redevelop the area between Hagood Avenue and Lockwood Boulevard, between Fishburne and Spring streets, as a mixed-use community centered upon medical science companies that could grow out of research at MUSC.

Further addressing the economy, Riley said he has been working very hard to make sure the Obama administration's proposed economic recovery plan directs funding to cities for construction initiatives. Riley said he plans to seek federal stimulus money for long-awaited drainage improvement projects in Charleston.

He noted that federal New Deal funding in the 1930s, through the Works Progress Administration, contributed to 80 initiatives in Charleston County, including construction of the Dock Street Theatre. The city is currently undertaking a more than $20 million renovation of that theater. Riley said the city has determined that a major renovation of the Gaillard Auditorium will be the next major step in improving Charleston's performing arts facilities, though he said that project will depend on "substantial sums" of private money being raised.

"The way we respond to challenges determines the kind of people we are," Riley said. "That is how Charleston has always approached its challenges in the past and that is what we together will do this year."