Riley focuses on plans for African-American museum as his last term draws to a close

As he readies to leave office, longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is claiming his legacy.

Much of Charleston’s recently acclaimed success has been the product of consistent, deliberate effort — by him and his staff — over the course of his 10 terms in office, Riley said in an interview earlier this month.

As examples of those successes, Riley cites the revitalization of downtown Charleston, the improvement of race relations within the city and the growth of the Lowcountry’s technology industry.

When it comes to public-policy decisions, Riley said he always has encouraged his staff to research best practices, asking them, “Is anybody doing this better than we are, in any way?”

But Riley also has been lauded for his leadership in times of crisis, when decisions had to be made quickly and under the glare of significant media attention.

The mayor was praised for his management of Charleston’s recovery after Hurricane Hugo in September 1989, when a storm surge and sustained winds of more than 100 mph battered the coast, causing 26 deaths and more than $5 billion in damage in South Carolina.

More recently, Riley has garnered admiration for his actions following the slaying of nine men and women on June 17 in the basement of Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church. In the aftermath of the shooting, Riley was a constant and conspicuous presence at vigils and funerals for the victims.

“Nine beautiful, loving people in a meeting about prayer and their religion were killed by a maniac,” Riley said at the time. “It’s the worst.”

That is not to say everyone always has been happy with the mayor.

In Charleston today there is significant discord and debate about a number of Riley’s policies and positions, including the regulation of cruise ships, architectural standards, annexation battles and his support for extending Interstate 526 to a semi-rural sea island.

Nonetheless, the mayor is leaving office with Charleston on a strong financial footing — it is the first S.C. city to achieve top bond ratings from both the Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s credit agencies — and as the recipient of many accolades.

In recent years, for example, magazines — including Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure — repeatedly have named Charleston as one of the world’s top places to visit.

But Riley’s work is not finished.

During his final months in office, Riley said he is focused on helping build the International African American Museum. Construction of the $75 million project is slated to begin in 2017. It will be built along the Cooper River, atop the site of a wharf that once was the entry point for tens of thousands of slaves brought into the United States.

“I’ve worked on many important buildings and institutions… and this is the most important,” said Riley, who keeps a scale model of the museum in his City Hall office. “I feel immense duty and responsibility to get as much done.

“It will be an institution of extraordinary value to our state and to our country.”

The power of the people

Even though he has no more elections to win, longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is especially laudatory of South Carolina’s residents. He thinks it is no accident that Travel + Leisure magazine named Charleston as the second-friendliest city in the world last month. (Galway, Ireland, is a tad friendlier, apparently.)

▪  “People in our state look you in the eye — a stranger — and tell you good morning or good afternoon and give you a smile. People can come to South Carolina and feel like they can feel at home.”

▪  Still, Riley cautioned South Carolina residents always must “strive to keep doing better.” But he is optimistic about the days ahead for the Palmetto State. “Our future is extremely bright.”

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