Charleston Mayor Joe Riley: emerging from the past
Like many of Charleston’s most famous attractions, Mayor Joseph P. Riley has been around for a while.
For 40 years, Riley has been the Holy City’s leader. When he leaves office in January, he will do so as a widely admired politician, credited with leading Charleston’s revival from a down-and-out port city to a world-class community for residents and visitors alike.
As the 72-year-old mayor winds down his days in Charleston’s City Hall and prepares for the next act in his life — he’ll keep working on a planned $75 million International African American Museum as a volunteer and will be teaching at The Citadel, among other things — The State asked Riley to temporarily expand his jurisdiction and assess the entire state of South Carolina.
What policy decisions should be made to make South Carolina a better place to live?
On a few topics, Riley was brief and to the point.
Invest in early childhood education, he urged, and increase the amount of money available for public infrastructure, perhaps through an increase in the state’s gas tax.
It is imperative that communities have well-functioning roads, bridges and public transportation, Riley said. “We have to have thriving, livable metropolitan areas that are creating jobs, and transportation is a very important part of that.”
Riley also mentioned the importance of attracting high-tech jobs, naming a handful of technology companies headquartered in Charleston, including Blackbaud, maker of fund-raising and nonprofit software; BoomTown!, purveyor of real estate software; and Benefitfocus, which specializes in human resources software.
Also critical to the Charleston region, he said, are the manufacturing operations of Boeing and, in the years to come, Volvo, which is building an automobile factory in nearby Berkeley County.
The importance of Home Rule
On other topics, Riley was more expansive.
Riley cautioned the power of local governments easily can be reduced by the actions of the state or federal governments.
“It’s easy to erode that, which is unfortunate because you want to, as a state policy, you want to empower, not diminish, but empower the governments closest to the people,” said Riley.
Riley says S.C. municipalities would benefit from more flexibility in how they can raise and spend money, mentioning legislative restrictions on how cities can spend revenues that they raise through hospitality and accommodations taxes.
Riley says municipalities also would benefit from less restrictive annexation laws, also imposed by legislators.
Too often, legislators step in when they are not needed.
Recently, for example, Charleston was preparing regulations for the car service Uber, modeling the city’s proposed statute on one passed in Minneapolis. Those city regulations were preempted, however, when the state Legislature passed its own Uber law, binding cities.
Riley says local government — not the state or federal government — is an inherently purer form of democracy. Local government meetings are accessible and nearby to citizens, so they can keep a close eye on the people they put in office.
“You don’t work through a lobbyist,” said Riley. “It’s so pure. (Citizens) come here, they speak … and they sit right there with you.”
That intimacy can present politicians with clear mandates, he added.
“If you understand their hearts, what would fulfill them, then you work to make that happen,” said Riley.
With all the positive buzz about Charleston today, it is easy to forget how much things have changed in the city.
“I’m old enough to remember South Carolina … and the state was poor, not that much capital here. People were migrating out, not migrating in,” said Riley.
Fortunately, those days have passed, said Riley.
“South Carolina has been and is making great progress. We should be very proud of our state and I am, in so many ways. Great things are happening here.”
However, to capitalize on the new-found attention and investment, the state must set high standards and demand excellence, said the mayor.
“Now, our ticket to greater success and achievement is making sure that everything we do is in pursuit of the goal of excellence,” said Riley. “We can pick and choose. OK, is this the best? Whatever it is. If it’s a matter of higher education, or the design of a new bridge or highway, or an early childhood initiative or the International African American Museum.”
The power of place
As mayor of Charleston, Riley knows the value of a good setting. He is proud, for example, of King Street’s reputation as being the center of all things retail.
“Of course, our downtown was essentially dead when I was elected,” said Riley. “I worked hard and developed strategic plans and put the pieces in place to restore it because that’s a public realm. Every citizen owns their Main Street.”
He is proud to have helped create public spaces like Charleston’s Waterfront Park, giving significant waterfront access to residents and visitors.
“We’ve built lots of parks in our city,” said Riley. “(It’s) one of the greatest things you can do because parks are forever, and they’re for everybody.”
Saying most people like to vacation in places where they can imagine themselves living, Riley suggested all South Carolina communities recognize the value of planning and conservation.
“Growth must be wise and thoughtful,” Riley said. “It makes for more livable communities, more successful communities, more communities in demand.
“We’ve got such a beautiful and environmentally diverse and rich state. The physical beauty of the land, the environment, of South Carolina must be preserved.
How to make SC better
Six things to do, according to longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who leaves office in January after 40 years as head of the Holy City
Riley: To the point
1. Invest in early childhood education
2. Spend more on public infrastructure
3. Attract high-tech and manufacturing jobs
Riley: More expansively
4. Empower local governments. “Empower the governments closest to the people. ... You don’t work through a lobbyist. It’s so pure. (Citizens) come here (to City Hall), they speak … and they sit right there with you.”
5. Pursue excellence in everything. “Our ticket to greater success and achievement is making sure that everything we do is in pursuit of the goal of excellence. ... Whatever it is.”
6. Recognize the value of planning and conservation. “Growth must be wise and thoughtful. ... The physical beauty of the land, the environment, of South Carolina must be preserved.’