Throughout North Charleston's Navy Yard and Park Circle communities, business owners are reeling in the wake of the state Commerce Department's decision to build a 71-acre intermodal rail facility adjacent to the new port terminal. Since the state made the apparent fait accompli public in the final hours before a holiday weekend, business owners say they heard nothing directly from any of those behind the plan and were left instead to chart their futures based only on what they read in the papers.
"It just feels extremely underhanded and, you know, like a back-room deal," says Jamee Haley, executive director of Lowcountry Local First, a nonprofit that has been located in the Navy Yard for the past three years. "In fact, it doesn't just feel like a back-room deal. That's exactly what it is."
Accompanying the fear and loathing is the feeling that what has transpired is putting political expedience before the state's potential to grow into a significant player in the knowledge-based economy.
There's no question that the Noisette Co. has been a benefactor to the nonprofit community. Haley says Lowcountry Local First has been using its space in the Navy Yard at Noisette rent free for years, and that her benevolent landlord has offered no-cost or very reduced rental rates to several other nonprofits in the area. "We knew all along that this area was eventually going to be redeveloped and that these buildings were not going to be here forever, but for the first time I'm really thinking seriously about how many of us may now be displaced," she says.
Today, much of Haley's life revolves around the area. Not only does she work in the Navy Yard, her daughter attended Palmetto Scholars, the new charter school located a few doors away from her office, and she and her husband own a home in Park Circle. "I just wonder how all of this is going to be impacted by what they're talking about," she says. "I wonder how attractive this area will be to future development with cargo trains running through here all the time, and I wonder what it's going to do to my property's value."
And Haley's own budget isn't the only one she's worried about. "It's pretty amazing that they can simply pull out $20 million to pay for this property."
Jaime Tenny, co-owner of Coast Brewing, says she doesn't know what will happen to her Second Street business. "My gut feeling is that whoever owns the building and area will probably sell it to the rail companies, and so we would be kicked out," Tenny says. "Obviously, I am against all of this, even more so for the residents and businesses in Park Circle."
She says the Commerce Department's announcement likely means an end to the incredible redevelopment Park Circle has undergone in recent years with new shops and restaurants.
"Park Circle has really been prospering, and a prospering area is what North Charleston really needs," she says. "It's a shame to see the state Commerce Department, of all things, risk an entire neighborhood and its businesses for this plan. Kind of goes against what their purpose should be, don't you think?"
She added that as debate and implementation of the plan go forward, "I'm sure there will be a lot of bullying from the state — and that is a scary thing."
Christopher Bernat and Jackson Burnett, founders of Vapor Apparel, have been serving major retailers and hundreds of digital print houses from their Noisette Boulevard location since 2004. In a joint statement, they say they are very aware of what they described as the "rail yard showdown." They consider it a very complicated problem and say that "middle ground must be found that is fair to all parties.
"We are concerned that the City of North Charleston is not being allowed to implement its plan for long-term improvement of its own city limits," they wrote. "If a city cannot count on the State of South Carolina to honor its previous agreement, what can they count on? It does not speak well for making investments in the area.
"We have made significant investments in our production and manufacturing space," they continued. "If an increase in rail traffic comes, it will further hinder our growth — and we are growing, by the way. One of the arguments you hear is that no one is doing anything that matters in the Navy Yard. We are one of the fastest growing companies in the state, having gone from two home-based employees to 20-plus in a 22,000-square-foot LEED-certified facility.
"We picked this area to invest in because of the long-term plan for the area. We are close to the airport, the port, and local innovators. Why would you want to change the rules on us?" they added.
Interestingly, they also mentioned that rail traffic through the area already costs them lost productivity hours — opining that "driving up the road for lunch can become a big mistake."
As more and more business owners commented on the proposal, that experience became a common theme. Kelly Wenner, owner of Kelly Wenner Designs on Noisette Boulevard, had a visceral response to learning of the rail plan. "Oh man, we're already getting slowed down every day," she says. "Given how often we have to wait for a train to go by at lunchtime, I think people are really going to freak out."
For Alan St. Clair, principal in Lead Dog, LLC, the Lowcountry-based commercial real estate firm that established its 40,000-square-foot Lowcountry Innovation Center at the Navy Yard in North Charleston, the concern is that the plan, in all its conceptual details, could very well hamper the region's efforts to foster a more technologically based economy.
"Of course, it's one of those things where, when you have a lack of information, you naturally assume the worst," St. Clair says. "I acknowledge that the Commerce Department did a great job with Boeing and that we want to have a dynamic port ... but if we really want to move forward, we really need to be focusing on creating and retaining knowledge-based jobs, and, I think, with Boeing and SPAWAR within minutes of this location, the Navy Yard is the place to create that knowledge-based community, if you will."
The Lowcountry Innovation Center is a private, commercial provider of incubator space for creative and knowledge-based companies that has attracted 17 tech-based companies to North Charleston, ranging from systems engineering firms to start ups specializing in artificial intelligence, bio-chemistry, and software design. But St. Clair says the center is putting the breaks on additional investment and won't look to fill the remaining 8,000 square feet of space in its facility "until we figure out what's happening out here."
Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor says the Innovation Center is the perfect match for development at the Navy Yard, as well as new environmental businesses that would pair well with Clemson's wind turbine facility.
"I think there are some extremely environmentally friendly, green friendly businesses that would be neat in there," Taylor says.