What role should the City play in economic development?
Under most models in SC, Counties lead economic development through County Development Boards which collaborate with other counties through regional alliances.
Beaufort County Council, perhaps because it is composed of eleven single members districts each with its own interests, has failed to meet the challenge of diversifying our economic base beyond government, construction and tourism related jobs.
Given the City Council's commitment to economic diversity as a means for growing our small city through creating job opportunities for those who grow up here and those who move here, and our concern that we cannot afford to only rely on limited segments of a larger economy, I had no alternative -- with the unanimous support from City Council - to try to fill the leadership void by (a) successfully engaging other municipalities like never before to collaborate on job creation (b) to salvage the already improved, but failed, Beaufort Commerce Park to help existing companies grow and to provide space which the Secretary of Commerce told me was the primary requisite for recruiting industry; (c) to create a workforce development program, as we are doing through collaboration with a non profit organization called TWEAC (working with high schools, USCB, TCL and the USC College of Engineering) to ensure that young people growing up here and veterans looking for meaningful jobs can have opportunities otherwise not in the Lowcountry; and (d) to roll up our sleeves to personally recruit businesses which I work on almost daily.
While change does not happen overnight, by working together rather than going it alone, Beaufort, Port Royal, Bluffton and Hilton Head have, accordingly, achieved several leads for the Commerce Park and elsewhere in the County: Bluffton is working a strong prospect; an overseas company will soon announce they are coming to Port Royal; and we hope to have at least one significant announcement of a large new industry for the Commerce Park during the first quarter of next year.
I know and accept that some believe this is not popular among those who enjoy a captive work force in lower paying less skilled jobs and by those who think economic diversity is private sector challenge and should not be the work of government.
If we had a system that was working, I would not have taken the "financial" and "political" and of urging my colleagues to step out front. But the system is broken, needs to be fixed and if the City must step forward that is the simple reality.
I have invested more than two years of my so-called private time on this initiative and will continue to do so until we succeed in creating a more well rounded economic base since there is little that is more important than finding meaningful jobs for this and the next generation of Beaufortonians.
What are your thoughts on the changes planned for Boundary Street and Ribaut Road?
I am not aware of any approved changes for Ribaut Road other than making it more bicycle friendly, slowing traffic through the residential neighborhoods and "possibly" one day considering a round about at the intersection of Ribaut, Depot and Bay intersection to keep traffic moving rather than backing up at lights. This being said, this is down the road as it is expensive, needs more study and more community input before it is even seriously considered.
Boundary Street Redevelopment around an improved corridor is a different story. Prior to my election, the voters of Beaufort County supported a transportation sales tax for road improvements. Some of the money was voted to be dedicated to improving Boundary Street which has more accidents than any other road in the city and it is not a very attractive entrance into a beautiful historic landmark.
Supported also by a $12.6 million federal grant, that would not been achieved had we not had a vision and a plan, Boundary Street will get a new face during the next year or so. This means, a new and safer intersection of highways 21 and 170 adjacent to the new McDonalds, setting sidewalks away from road with grass separation and trees, new paving, some medians, buried utility lines, safer cross walks, a multimodal path that connects the Government Center to the Rail Trail and incrementally a street running parallel to Boundary from the City Hall to the intersection of highways 170 and 21. This is a bold and long term project. As the City lays the foundation, we must rely on the private sector to improve their properties and that is not likely to happen overnight. That being said, there is new growth at the City Hall end and significant plans to transform Boundary Street at the western end adjacent to highway 170.
What is your opinion on the use of form based code?
Existing zoning is outdated largely due to the movement, among planners, government leaders and property owners who selected a very inefficient kind of planning that used land, torn down many trees and ran up the cost of government services.
For example, under the existing code one could not rebuild any part of Bay Street should it be taken away by a natural disaster; the same holds true for older neighborhoods particularly those in the central part of the city. There is an existing "form" in the City of Beaufort and all of its neighborhoods. The goal of developing a Beaufort Code(which is what I call it) is to capture and protect the form that is here, but also make the development processes more transparent, easier to understand and less costly in upfront investment. In other words one of the principal goals is to make what we have sustainable while growing what is around it while maintaining the hometown character we all enjoy.
With the exception of the greater downtown, about 1/3 of which is in the historic district, you will see little if any change other than our not frightening property owners by maintaining huge hurdles to development. We are likely (I support it) to continue with an Historic District Review Board though the processes may be adjusted to make the experience more predictable, more objective and front loaded to remove the guessing game (about what fits and what does not) that it currently is.
Some think of the form based code which has been used in Newpoint, Habersham and other new communities around the country as something that will lead to cookie cutter development. That cannot happen in Beaufort because our form is established and must be maintained.
While consultants have drafted the generic code, based on conventional form base criteria, City Council appointed a citizens panel with professionals and neighborhood representatives to ensure the final product fits our beautiful town.
That being said, I hope the citizens will open their minds to doing something differently like they have in the past, with one example being the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park which a large number of our citizens opposed from the outset even though they love and are proud of the final product.
We are at least six months, and more like a year or more, away from having a final product as whatever the taskforce recommends must first be vetted and commented on by each of the neighborhoods, the Beaufort Port Royal Metropolitan Planning Commission and finally those of us who you elect to City Council.
What are your thoughts regarding parking in downtown Beaufort?
It is not a question of "thoughts" about parking. I believe if I polled the public and members of City Council we would all say that we hate paying to park and paying fines when we overstay our time at the meters or in the kiosk lots.
However, the reality is that parking in downtown Beaufort is, has been and is likely to be a challenge. Unlike many core cities, where there are places for parking to the rear of buildings and the blocks surrounding all four sides of the core area, Beaufort does not have this. Instead, we gave up parking to the rear of some buildings by building a park which no one would disagree is downtowns largest asset. To the East we have the Point Neighborhood with narrow streets that restrict on street parking and to the North we have the Old Commons Neighborhood which also has narrow streets that lend to the character of our city. But without being able to spread parking around, we are going to have a problem for merchants, their employees and their customers. The question is how to best manage it.
Until we find a magical answer to physical space and human behavior we must have some sort of regulated parking to ensure turnover which enhances business opportunities.
The City's long term vision includes a parking deck that will (a) absorb the marina parking so the most valuable real estate in the city can be put to use and (b) handle long term parkers (those who work downtown) at a more reasonable rate. But keep in mind one space in a parking deck costs about $20,000 before you pay for the land. Furthermore, there are few spots where a deck can be built in such a manner that it fits in with mass and scale of the historic character of our city and its important historic landmark district. That is not to say that we have not been working for years, and at an accelerated pace in the past year, to identify an appropriate site and find private sector partners to build and operate something that is likely too large an investment for our small city to go it alone. Timing, the real estate market, the economy and other factors have to align to make this happen and it will require a lot of give and take if we are to achieve what most believe we need.
Do you view tourism as an economic strategy, and if so, what should the City do to grow this industry?
The city's role is to lead the discussion, support the industry and invest limited dollars wisely to help grow the tourism while ensuring the city remains an attractive and safe place to live and visit.
Tourism is one of the key tools for building our city, but it cannot be an end in and of itself because Beaufort is a small city that can only accommodate so many people at a time without challenging the quality of life of those who live here. It is my personal view that Charleston, though much larger than Beaufort, is an example of a city whose tourism is out of balance because downtown Charleston is dominated by visitors and part time residents while those who want to lead normal lives have left the peninsula (downtown) to move to what they consider more livable neighborhoods. Then again Charleston is fortunate to be adjacent to North Charleston and the Tri Dent area which are growing with better jobs. We do not have that luxury so we have to be careful.
While I would never close our doors to any one who wants to visit our beautiful city, the many tourism related organizations and businesses must collaborate to target those who are likely to not only enjoy what we have to offer, but might have something to give back like: potentially moving here one day; investing in Beaufort'; moving a business to Beaufort; sending their like minded friends to visit us and making return visits.
This way tourism is one of the several tools we have to build out city to ensure it is environmentally, culturally and fiscally sustainable.