In 1994, few people were proud to say that they lived in North Charleston, a fact that Keith Summey found out while campaigning door-to-door in his first mayoral election. "I went to a lady's house on North Rhett to seek her support, and she told me that when people asked her where she lived, she told them, 'Off the Mark Clark,'" Summey recalls. In the 18 years since, Summey says North Charleston has reinvented itself from an industrial city to one that's also a great place to live.
And that's not just the civic boosterism talking. You can see the difference in the new North Charleston each year when an ever-expanding kaleidoscope of humanity fills Riverfront Park for Fourth of July fireworks, and you can hear it every time a young couple proudly announces, "We live in Park Circle."
"I was concerned about what people outside of North Charleston thought about us, but I was even more concerned about what we thought about ourselves," Summey says. "I think we have built up our self-esteem, and that has played into other people having more respect for us as a community."
Part of the image makeover has to do with reduced crime rates: North Charleston is no longer among the nation's most violent cities, and the police department has adopted some cutting-edge enforcement practices. Every Monday, Summey sits in on a meeting with North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt, who identifies areas that had a crime spike in the previous week and then beefs up the patrols in those areas. Police also took the step of putting geographic arrest data online via the mapping service RAIDS.
Aside from the reduction in crime and the arrival of Boeing's Dreamliner assembly plant, history will probably remember Summey for how he has handled the redevelopment of the one-time Charleston Naval Base. In September 1998, a City Paper column called "The Wandering Eye" by D.A. Smith mentioned the controversy surrounding possible commercial development at the northern end of the recently shuttered military complex. The writer noted that "Mayor Keith Sumney" (we misspelled his name twice in the same story — sorry, mayor) was pushing for a marina complex, boat ramp, and movie studio, while former Mayor John Bourne wanted to put in a new break-bulk cargo terminal.
The movie studio never came to pass (SPAWAR snatched up the property), but it's the same sort of battle Summey has fought since the Navy left North Charleston in 1996. And while a national recession and an ongoing legal dispute with S.C. Public Railways have put development of the Navy Yard on hold to some extent, the mayor remains optimistic about the neighborhoods that surround the former military complex. The city's investment in the once-slumping Olde Village area helped attract a cluster of small businesses and a surge of young professionals to nearby Park Circle's post-WWII-era neighborhoods, and Summey thinks he can replicate that success on the southern end of town. The linchpin this time will be Shipwatch Square, an abandoned shopping center on Rivers Avenue that the city recently demolished. The city is currently in negotiations with a major grocery store to build on the property.
"It's almost biblical: You see one area come back, and it begets another area's interest in coming back," Summey says.