Mt. Pleasant has a reputation for its natural beauty and laid-back vibe. It boasts a unique heritage and gorgeous marshlands. It's close to the beaches at the Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island. And it has relatively safe neighborhoods and high-quality public schools.
Recently named an All-America City by the National Civic League, the town appears to be on a roll. With a set of spiffy new parks, public facilities, and roadways, the community seems to be thriving.
But there's a negative side, too. After decades of accelerated growth and development, the town suffers from a comparatively higher cost of living, a perception that its government is unfriendly to business owners, and frustrating traffic congestion, especially along Johnnie Dodds Boulevard and Highway 17.
However, a new generation of town leaders seems confident that things are on the right track for the community. Last year, residents elected a new mayor and four new members to the town's eight-seat council. Longtime Town Administrator Mac Burdette stepped aside after a lengthy tenure and passed the scepter to an enthusiastic protégé, Eric DeMoura.
Tall, fit, well-spoken, and eager to listen, the 36-year-old DeMoura is a sharp guy. He's also the first new administrator Mt. Pleasant has had in 25 years.
Previously, DeMoura served as the deputy town administrator and the deputy director of administrative services, during which he supervised the finance, purchasing, and tourism divisions. "Desirable communities don't just happen," DeMoura says. "You don't just have a little pixie dust and get a desirable community. People are responsible for making them happen."
Looking down the road, DeMoura believes the town is facing a fiscal crisis that must be dealt with immediately and carefully.
"Money we had when we were growing is not going to be around," he says. "That's the case nationwide, too. People feel tapped out, so there's no appetite for more taxes. The economy is going to be sluggish for the foreseeable future. We're not going to have the monies coming into the general fund like we've had before, so we're going to focus on preserving the core services, like fire and police and fire protection, sanitation services, and solid recreation services. I just don't think the money will be there in the future to do all the things we used to do."
A host of road projects designed to lessen the congestion on Highway 17 and Coleman Boulevard loom just over the horizon. "The completion of these current road projects will mean everything for the town. It'll mean that we can actually breathe again," says Mayor Billy Swails, a Mt. Pleasant native and veteran public servant who took office a year ago.
A longtime businessman and insurance agent, Swails served two terms on Town Council from 1976-1984, when the town was less than half the size it is now in land space and in population. In 2006 he returned to council.
Swails considers the road projects along Johnnie Dodds Boulevard, Bowman Road, and Coleman Boulevard — plus the widening of Highway 17 (north of the IOP Connector) — to be top priorities and economic engines that make common sense. In fact, Swails beleives that Mt. P's traffic woes will soon be seen only in the rearview mirror of history.
"We won't have traffic starting at three o'clock and running 'til six o'clock when people are trying to get home to get their children to go to our recreation department," Swails predicts, later adding that recent studies predict traffic counts will go down over the new next few years. "It means maybe we won't have as many accidents because our streets are wide and our overpasses are working the way they should."
Like Swails, DeMoura predicts an end to traffic congestion from the Ravenel Bridge to the top end of Highway 17. "Instead of two lanes on either side, operating at a certain level of service, we'll have six lanes with a landscaped median in the middle, curb and drainage, and sidewalks on either side," he says. "We're trying to move traffic while making it as aesthetically pleasing as possible."
Swails says he and the Town Council are pleased with the progress along Johnnie Dodds Boulevard and the revitalization of Shem Creek, a bustling area where working fishermen share dock space with bars and restaurants, considered to be an anchor of the Coleman Boulevard corridor. However, things are moving slower than expected along Coleman, where there has been talk of on-street parking, a proposal that has raised many an eyebrow.
"I've re-evaluated that issue, and I don't think we can have on-street parking," says Swails. "We've worked with some of the people with the bigger pieces of property — like the old Family Dollar, the Moultrie Shopping Center, and Sea Island — but I don't see us taking any state right of way to have on-street parking."
He also strongly supports constructing a roundabout at the congested three-point intersection of Coleman, Chuck Dawley, and Ben Sawyer boulevards by the Sea Island Shopping Center and Royall Hardware. That spot is considered to be the other anchor of the Coleman Boulevard corridor.
"I haven't been everywhere in the world, but I've been to Rome, Paris, Vienna, and London, where they have roundabouts, and they've been there for hundreds of years," says Swails. "We can adapt to that. Roundabouts calm traffic. I'd rather have those than traffic lights. Red lights only make people run into the back of you."
Sprawl and Infill
Isolated from the bustle in Charleston across the Cooper River, Mt. Pleasant was initially comprised of five hamlets along the harbor and along the Wando River. The first European settlements in Mt. Pleasant date back to 1680. After the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge connected the town with Charleston in 1929 — eliminating the need for ferries to the peninsula — the town slowly started to grow from a rural conglomeration of little neighborhoods into a small city.
"Even though I had the best childhood in the world, I'd say you didn't want to live in Mt. Pleasant in the '50s and '60s," says Swails. "Most people wanted to live west of the Ashley. We had nothing. When we first got a shopping center, we thought we were a big deal. When we first got a Hardee's, we though we were a big deal. We've progressed, and I don't think anyone really wants to go back to the way we were."
When Francis F. Coleman took office as mayor in 1946, Mt. Pleasant's population numbered about 1,500.
In 1958, the section of Highway 17 that passed through the southern part of Mt. Pleasant (a.k.a. Old Georgetown Road) was named in honor of Coleman. He served as mayor until 1960. During his terms in office, the town limits were extended, roads were paved and widened, and the population expanded to 5,000.
Mt. Pleasant grew in size and population at an accelerated pace between the 1970s and '90s. DeMoura is quite aware of the community's concerns about sprawl and infill, too. "From what I learned about that period right after Hugo, it seemed like a boom, and the elected body and staff were concerned about growth suddenly getting out of control," he says. "They asked, 'What can we do so we don't lose our community and lose what has made it unique over the years?' That's when they put in things like the design review board and a building permit allocation program, which implemented a regulatory function which limited the number of permits to be given out each year."
Combating sprawl by developing unused or under-used properties will have to be well thought out, especially if that infill involves multi-story buildings along Coleman and Highway 17, as has been discussed. "We have a very strong planning department that is very careful about things," says Linda Page, one of the four newly elected members on Mt. Pleasant's Town Council. With a down-to-earth attitude and folksy charm, Page is a familiar figure in the town. She moved to Mt. Pleasant in 1959 when she was six weeks old and grew up on the Isle of Palms and in Mt. Pleasant. Her parents established Page's Thieves Market at the old Simmons Lumber Yard on Ben Sawyer Boulevard in 1964. The rustic, barn-like structure is one of the most recognizable landmarks of Old Mt. Pleasant.
Page brings a bit of old-school Mt. Pleasant to the table — not only from her personal experience, but with her appreciation for the town's history and heritage.
However, Page acknowledges that the face of Mt. Pleasant will have to change. "We're looking at a community that has to infill. That's where we are. Is that going change the character? Sure."
That said, Page doesn't believe that change has to come about quickly. She says. "We're not planning for ourselves. We're planning for future generations."
DeMoura believes that the new Mt. Pleasant will be a much denser city. "We're trying to develop an urban core here," he says. "If you're growing, you're either becoming more dense or you're sprawling. That's why we have on the books bigger buildings for Coleman and Chuck Dawley and Johnnie Dodds. But we don't want the same density farther along Highway 17 as in these urban corridors."
Five years ago, Town Council gave initial approval to a Sweetgrass Basket Overlay District along Hungry Neck Boulevard and Highway 17. The Sweetgrass District is a joint effort with Charleston County to recognize and protect the art form that has been a part of the community for more than 300 years.
"The residents in those neighborhoods chose to create a zoning district that would preserve that rural residential character," says Page. "I have a new perspective after looking at these old neighborhoods where people feel generational connections to the land."
Veteran Mt. Pleasant Town Council member Thomasena Stokes-Marshall has been a leader in helping the historic Gullah-Geechee communities in East Cooper have a voice in local debates and the town's planning.
"We're aware of the needs of residents in those communities," says Page. "Unfortunately, we're challenged on the north side. Development will happen and taller buildings and mixed-use are coming to our community. These issues are among some of the most important facing the town."
Guided by recommendations from the Coleman Revitalization Advisory Board (CRAB), the council is also in the process of possibly creating an urban corridor along Coleman Boulevard. The process could add another tier of zoning regulations that would ensure the areas get developed.
"They came up with the concept of what a boulevard would look like as a city center with slower traffic, wider medians, walkability, tree-lined streets, and that kind of thing," says Page. "We have to consider how densely they'll build, how high, and so on. As a business person, I'm challenged by the regulations and restrictions, so I try to separate it. At some point, we have to come to a collective decision."
An Aging Population
Facing the prospects of an aging population and a static or declining tax base, last spring, the Town Council approved a strategic marketing initiative aimed at recruiting young adults and families to settle in Mt. Pleasant.
Studies revealed that without a healthy influx of newcomers, more than 40 percent of the town will be people over the age of 55 by the year 2025.
"We brought in a professional, nationally renowned demographer to help us determine what our community would look like in the future," DeMoura says. "It's tough to develop long-term, strategic plans and put money away for issues if you don't know what they're going to be. The demographer saw Mt. Pleasant as a dynamic place with kids playing in the parks, but he said, 'That's not the way it's going to be pretty soon.' There was almost a fierce response against what he told us. But he emphasized that the community was going to change even faster than the average rate."
DeMoura and the town council realized that the population growth rate will likely level off in Mt. Pleasant over the next 10 years, but they were determined to find ways to maintain the dynamic diversity of the community. They became even more open to new ideas.
As part of an ongoing strategic marketing initiative, the town constructed a community website (ideasformp.com) where they invite residents to share feedback and ideas to help shape the town and improve the quality of life. The council also approved a new town logo featuring a depiction of the Ravenel Bridge and the slogan "Come on Over."
The Next Five Years
"The future is almost a dichotomy," says DeMoura. "We may need the increase in the delivery of services, but we need to do our best to round the wagons and decrease government in other areas at the same time.
"We're going to have to start putting aside funds to replace and maintain decaying infrastructure, which has never been our problem before," he adds. "Some of the neighborhoods are getting older, and the town owns the roads and the storm water systems inside of them, so we'll have to transition from building a city to maintaining one."