It's hard to imagine that the future of an aged shopping center would be smack dab in the middle of a City Council race — especially when the grocery store is outside of the district — but it seems like all the excitement in the District 11 race has circled around when and where a Harris Teeter is coming to the Coburg shopping plaza on Savannah Highway. Only blocks from the St. Andrews precincts voting Nov. 6, this quality of life issue has been at the center of the campaign.
Challenger Timothy Mallard sent out a post card to voters warning the project was in jeopardy. Two-term Council Member Anne Frances Bleecker is planning her own mailout, letting voters know the grocery store is still a go and has her complete support, along with more details about trees filling the parking lot, a CARTA bus stop, and a drive-through Starbucks. Bleecker says the development will bring the revitalization of the Avondale district further down Savannah Highway, beyond the Coburg shopping center toward K-Mart and the Auto Mall. "I've gotten phone calls from people who are concerned," she says. "That's a huge issue over there."
The rub is the city's vision for another building fronting the highway. City officials say it will help slow down traffic on the busy highway. Mallard says the added building will doom the project.
"The city is unyielding," he says. "They say they want the grocery store, but they only want what they want."
Mallard, an industrial realtor, believes the city's vision for growing businesses, jobs, and communities is disconnected from reality.
"Practicality is what they've lost," he says. "The city has gotten complicated with more fees, more permits, more California ideas. We're choking on ourselves."
Bleecker, an attorney, wants to continue her work on council, particularly the development of a growth plan for Johns Island. City planners have developed a suburban model for the island that leaves large-scale development in three high-traffic areas on the island's main roads, with the number of homes dwindling as you drive away from these three zones. The planning also accounts for water system and school district plans in the area and includes contributions from ecologists and other environmental professionals.
"This has been the most gratifying experience," she says. "To have an opportunity like this to do the right thing and preserve this large, rural island. The next step is to bring it to reality."
The city staff will be giving another pitch for the management plan this week to the city's planning commission, but Mallard says that he and other residents still need their questions answered.
"I'm just a poor ol' West Ashley boy," he says. "I'm excited they have some vision, but they need to be more practical and explain that to us laymen."
Quality of life issues are important for both candidates. Bleecker developed the Mayor's Office on Aging during her first term. She says she'll press for more public access to the waterways and more support for public transportation, like CARTA.
"Over time we're just going to adapt to using public transportation more," she says. "That, in time, is going to happen. It has to."
Mallard, a member of the regional Council of Governments, wants to see improved roads, less high-density development, and, while he supports new industries in the city, he also supports a push for locating new businesses in North Charleston and Goose Creek to cut down on the commuting traffic heading into the city every day.
The new police chief is providing new ideas and new energy to the police force, Bleecker says, but she also notes that she wants a full-time municipal judge to help with the workload of new arrests. Mallard says the police department is doing what it can, but that the chief isn't thinking for himself.
"You ask a question and he writes it down and sends you a letter to respond," he says. "It's like he's got to go to the mayor to get an answer."
After the Sofa Super Store fire on Savannah Highway, many council candidates have tepidly answered questions about the fire department's inadequacies identified through the city's independent investigation. With a photo of her son and Chief Rusty Thomas sitting in her office, Bleecker says she's been visiting with firefighters since the blaze. She hasn't been surprised by the investigation's findings, and she believes Thomas and the existing department leadership can implement any recommendations. She says one voter told her that he holds her, the mayor, Chief Thomas, and the rest of the council personally responsible.
"We will always take responsibility, because that's what you do," she says. "Had I been able to anticipate that, I would have done everything humanly possible..."
Mallard says he would try to address concerns before they happen, like the tap fees abandoned after the fire that some say have prevented businesses like the Sofa Super Store from installing sprinkler systems.
"I want to be proactive, not reactive," he says. "Whether it be a fire or a hurricane evacuation or anything like that. It seems like this government is always reacting."
Bleecker's running to continue her work on council, bringing her experience working on Johns Island to the rest of the district and moving the vision for Coburg shopping plaza down Savannah Highway.
"It's about being able to have a positive impact on a place that you love and care about and to have the opportunity to be a part of the energy of this city," she says.
Mallard wants to be "a voice for the suburbs" who feel neglected from a peninsular approach to governing.
"I will be a strong voice for West Ashley, Johns Island, and James Island," he says. "Not an echo."