News+Opinion » D. A. Smith

Hey mayors, turf wars ain't good for business

Neutral Corners, Please

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Last Tuesday, one could be forgiven for thinking that a meeting of business owners deciding where to build the new clubhouse might be on the dull side. What actually transpired turned into a contest of wills between the strong personalities of Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey.

About 10 years ago, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, the nation's oldest business organization, decided that the provincial, locals-only approach no longer worked. A collaborative, regional economic development initiative was the way to go.

Since 2000, the focus has been on improving education, infrastructure, governance — issues that affect the whole tri-county area — in order to enhance the fortunes of existing enterprises and attract new ones.

The Chamber has been temporarily housed in North Chuck's Baker Hospital building since 2004, and word on the street was that the group intended to announce the selection of a North Charleston site off Remount Road and I-526 for its new HQ.

But roughly two weeks ago, Little Joe got in the mix by offering an alternative — the little industrial-area-that-was in the Neck known as the Magnolia project, which so happens to be in the hands of Riley's friend Robert Clement III.

Clement offered the top floor of a proposed building in the Magnolia project. He then kicked it up by proposing to suspend the Chamber's current rent payments on the Baker lease. Clement is part of the group that manages said property.

How convenient.

Anyhoo, the costs ($4 million each) of both sites are competitive, but the rent reduction could save the Chamber around $417,000.

Not surprisingly, Summey blew his top over Riley's late offer.

Summey groused to The Post and Courier, "The executive committee as recently as last month had decided to select the Remount Road site. At the 11th hour, there was this interference from outside the Chamber that applied pressure."

Riley countered that, "I realized if we had a site, we needed to get moving."

As of Wednesday, both mayors agreed to butt out of the selection process, but I see some guerilla-style lobbying in their futures. It's their nature.

There's a big chip on the shoulder of folks in the more industrial North Charleston, which is derived from the frequently snobbish treatment the city gets at the hands of its older and supposedly more cosmopolitan neighbor.

This is a big problem in that quite a few Charlestonians don't think that "Up Chuck" is where the area's representative interests should be located. Meanwhile, an equal number of North Charleston residents think that Little Joe only has to pick up the phone to get his way.

Then there's the tendency of both mayors to indulge in the proprietary thinking of "MY Chamber of Commerce," "MY police department," "MY [insert here]."

According to former Chamber President Dick Elliott, this kind of thinking typifies the organization's current regional development difficulties. "Both mayors are looking out for their constituencies and that's admirable," he said. "But the Chamber's focus is on getting these two to realize they need to collaborate so that the region succeeds."

He continued, "The Chamber is facing issues that don't recognize city limits like high school dropout rates, crime, lack of green space, and such, and we want to find successful approaches to these problems."

I suspect that one way the Chamber can do this is by not getting involved in a fight between the two mayors over how many cherries are on top of their individual real-estate sundaes.

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