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Joe Riley

Best Charlestonian to Exile to Drum Island

Joe Riley

Much like the Cola Wars, there are competing points of view regarding the legacy of Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. The argument can likely best be summed up from a news story last year out of Sarasota, Fla., on that city's debate over whether to elect a mayor.

"I would hate to think that this city would be run by one individual for such a lengthy period of time," a neighborhood association president said, using Riley as an example.

Others said Riley and Charleston showed how things should work. "If Joe Riley weren't doing things correctly, he would have been kicked out a long time ago."

On a busy afternoon, the mayor answered some questions for us on his past and future as mayor of Charleston.

City Paper: We wanted to get your take on how Charleston has changed in the last 10 years...

Riley: Charleston has become an even better and more livable city. Its economy is growing stronger. New businesses and high-tech companies have been attracted to our area. The citizens have a better chance now to make a good living here, and their children and grandchildren have a better chance to stay and live here. We've seen increased restorations and revitalization of our downtown. There's new parks and recreational facilities. I think there is even more optimism in Charleston and there's more hope and excitement about the future than there was 10 years ago.

Also, Charleston has become more prominent. In the top magazines that rank desirable places to visit, Charleston ranks fourth or fifth in North America, usually behind New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

And I think the community coming together and approving the half-cent sales tax has meant that we have the resources to embark on a wonderful greenbelt preservation program and ensures that we have a public transportation system and address transportation needs.

What 10 years has produced is remarkable community progress that our citizens have made happen. I think the outlook for the future is brighter than it has ever been.

CP: Throughout your time as mayor, what has been your most difficult challenge in getting people to see your vision?

Riley: Charleston Place was a challenge because of the uncertainty of the ability of downtown to be successful and how to go about it. Of course, that has proven to be remarkably successful and downtown being restored so wonderfully is a result of that. I think the Waterfront Park was another issue that had some skeptics that has proven to be wonderful. The Spoleto Festival -- many wondered why we should get involved in an international arts festival. The aquarium was one that certainly had some skeptics, although the voters twice voted in support of it.

There's no crystal ball and certainly no clairvoyance here. It's about hard work. And working on difficult issues and making sure that you've worked hard enough, thoughtfully enough, energetically enough, that you've studied and listened enough to be certain of the right course of action. With those and many others, nobody woke up one morning -- I certainly didn't -- and said "Oh, I've got this great idea." Rather it was the result of thoughtful, engaged, deliberative planning and lots of listening.

CP: During Hurricane Katrina, you were once referred to as the "Disaster Relief Czar." What do you think it was about your response to Hurricane Hugo that elevated you to such a title?

Riley: I was working hard for our citizens. I tried to be as good as they would be. So, after Hugo, my goal was to not let my citizens down and to try to make the best decisions possible and to give them the best leadership, encouragement, and resources. And when I knew the hurricane was coming, I said, "This is an opportunity. Not an opportunity that we'd ever want to have or wish for. But this is an opportunity for exceptional service. We have routine things day in and day out that you do for your citizens, we have regulatory things, giving speeding tickets to people, buying business licenses. We don't want this, but our citizens' lives, property, and well-being are at risk. And we have the opportunity to serve them when they need us most. So let's accept this. Let's not bemoan the fact we've got a hurricane heading for us; we can't change this. Let's say that in this greatest challenge, let's give the citizens the best service we can possibly give. And if we do that, we will not only be serving them when they need us most, but we can create a connection and a sense of accomplishment that can allow our city and citizens to do a lot more."

I started from that philosophy; so then, when the hurricane hit and the eye came over City Hall, I called my people together and I said, "OK, we've been hit dead-on. We don't know what we are going to see when the sun comes up in the morning, but it's going to be terrible." I said, "We've done the best job of preparing. Now, we're going to do the best job of recovery that any city has ever done." That was the philosophy, and I just worked as hard as I could to make that happen.

CP: You are planning to run again for mayor. When did you decide to go for another four years?

Riley: It was probably a decision that was being made over a year or two, but I think I decided inside about a year ago that there was still so much to do and my desire to serve was as strong and my interest in my job and my love for the service of the people is as strong, if not stronger than it has ever been. So I felt that I should keep working and keep seeking to serve the citizens. And we've still got so much to do.

We're working hard on public education and finding ways to be engaged with our schools. From the core mission to after-school programs and mentoring programs and tutoring programs. And the transportation challenge, that is tremendous. We worked so hard to get the half-cent sales tax passed to put that into effect.

There's the challenge of growth management. Our economy is booming, we've got people moving here and we've got the pressures of growth that we've got to manage. We've got to make sure this city is as beautiful and livable 10 years and 100 years from now as it is now.


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