As candidates for the District 5 council seat prepare for Nov. 6 elections, the big elephant isn't in the room, but it's on the way. The Magnolia development planned for acres and acres of industrial wasteland fronting the Ashley River in the neck of the peninsula is expected to start moving dirt early next year, providing almost a second downtown once the project is completed a few decades from now.
Councilman Jimmy Gallant, after serving on the council for eight years, has been working closely with developers and says that he's excited for what the development will bring to the surrounding communities. He's pushed for answers to resident concerns and has held companies accountable to clean up the mess they've left behind. The priority over the next four years as the project begins building is to ensure that promises made for affordable housing are followed through, along with improved sewer lines, sidewalks, and street paving that are expected to extend beyond the Magnolia property lines to neighboring communities. In working with the developers, Gallant says that he's taught them about inner-city concerns when it comes to new projects.
He'd also like to see standard services come to the communities of District 5, like banks and upscale grocery stores that can follow an influx of residents.
"The Magnolia development will bring that along," he says. "You'll have the people there that will be able to support that kind of development."
Gallant's challenger, Leroy Conners, says officials haven't kept the neighboring residents informed of the development plans.
"I hope that there will be some sensitivity and respect to the folks living in that area," he says.
While he's looking for four more years, Gallant says he'll be ready to leave the council when his next term ends in 2011.
"Twelve years will be enough," he says. "It will be time for fresh ideas." But, for now, he's looking to push through long-term projects, like fixing the city's drainage problems, most recently evidenced in the flooding during last week's downpour. The city recently received $4 million toward the effort, but Gallant notes that the council will have to continue to seek out money to get it done.
"I won't be on council when that's done," he says. "But we need to keep pushing."
Conners says the flooding should be the council's No. 1 priority. "Nothing's been done in my 57 years," he says. "Whatever money it takes, we need to get it done."
On crime, Gallant reiterated a consistent theme for many candidates: officers need to get back out of their cars and walk the streets. "It's different when you're mobile in the community and just don't stop," he says.
Both candidates called for an increased police presence in areas that have had a problem with drugs and violence. Conners says there needs to be more recreational opportunities in areas like Bay Side to provide alternatives to trouble. He also says education is the answer.
"I think when we put more focus on quality education and we give more opportunities to succeed, then they'll find more alternatives," he says.
Conners was the cofounder of the Friends of Burke and has just finished serving two tumultuous years on the peninsula's Constituent School Board, where he and other members challenged the district's ignorance to admissions abuses at Buist Academy and highlighted the inequity in resources for historically black schools on the peninsula. He says the City Council needs to take a more active role in education, noting, "It's a responsibility of the entire community."
Both candidates say young families are being kept from the housing market on the peninsula. While some have questioned whether affordable housing is even possible these days, Gallant says that he's seen it work in cities like Raleigh and Atlanta, where affordable homes stand side by side with luxury condos.
"When you look at the homes, you can't tell the difference," he says. The reason it hasn't been done here is because no one has pressed developers to see the value in a mixed community, Gallant says.
As chair of the city's public safety committee, Gallant says he's been frequently asked about the council's authority over the fire department after the Sofa Super Store fire in June that killed nine firefighters, but says he doesn't have many answers.
"There's still some information that's not coming forth," Gallant says. "The meat of the investigation has not been given to the council."
As a growing city, Gallant says it may be time for the City Council to become more accountable for city operations.
"The mayor has not allowed the council to do a lot of the things it should have been doing," he says, noting the committee should be overseeing all of the city's public safety departments. "There are a lot of responsibilities that the council has had, but the council has not been able to make those decisions."
Gallant says that he is not calling for Chief Rusty Thomas to resign, suggesting, as others have, that the city wait out pending federal and state investigations.
Conners says that he respects the department and mourns those lost, but that the investigation has shown how ill equipped the city's firefighters were. "You would think that a city like Charleston would be well equipped," he says.
While he was critical of Thomas' first comments that the city wouldn't change how it fights fires, Conners says there's still a chance that Thomas can lead the department through the necessary changes.
"That's going to be determined by attitudes," he says. "The fire department has run on a good ol' boy atmosphere. That has to change. There need to be promotions made on merit, not friendship. That's hard to do in Charleston."
Both candidates for the District 5 seat have spent decades serving the community. Gallant is a pastor and volunteer chaplain for the city Police Department. He also runs a program for at-risk boys from the eighth grade through high school. Conners has been involved in city recreation since he was a teenager. While their service to the community will certainly continue — when it comes to representing District 5 — there can be only one.