North Charleston is not the same place it was when Keith Summey became the city's third mayor in 1994. From one perspective, that is a ringing endorsement for the incumbent in the November election: North Chuck is losing its reputation as a violent, blighted city. From another perspective, a truly new North Charleston might need a new mayor with a fresh pair of eyes.
When Summey took office, the Navy Yard was still a major employer and economic force, although it was on its way out, and the place where the Tanger Outlets stand was a forest. Today, North Charleston has reinvented itself, leaning more heavily on its position as the state's leader in retail sales, and this year, it landed a lucrative tenant: the new Boeing Dreamliner assembly plant.
When November comes around, Summey will make a run for his sixth election. Enter the Rev. Chris Collins, pastor of Healing Ministries Baptist Church Center, owner of Charleston Appliances, and first-term member of the Charleston County School Board. Whereas Summey's priorities include promoting quality growth and keeping the crime rate down, Collins is focused on building a homeless shelter and changing the way police treat citizens. Collins also says he would have handled the Navy Yard railroad conflict differently, finding a compromise before suing the state government. He attends neighborhood meetings, visits churches, and often has people come to his office with their problems.
"I guess you could say it's the role of a father or big brother," he says. Collins has an easy smile and lacks the polished demeanor of a career politician. He lists the construction of a homeless shelter as his No. 1 priority and says the city could renovate an unused building in the Navy Yard for that purpose. "Even if it's temporary, we can do something to help out our own poor." He says he knows homeless people who have been arrested for sleeping in the woods when they had no other options for shelter. "To me, that's pretty harsh," he says.
Crime and enforcement are the major dividing issues for the two candidates. So far this year, the city has had two homicides — the same number as Mt. Pleasant, Summey notes. Summey remembers the years when that figure hovered around 20, including 2006, when North Charleston was ranked the seventh-most violent city in America. He sees increased police patrols and stronger code enforcement as keys to the crime turnaround, along with creative police techniques like daily crime mapping and patrol saturation in recent criminal hotspots. "It either stabilizes the problem or runs it somewhere else," he says.
But Collins says police have been writing too many tickets for things like broken tail lights and stopping too many people to see if they own their cars. He would rather increase nighttime neighborhood patrols, and he would like for police to be equipped with motorcycles and horses.
"Let's say a senior is a widow, and she maybe is a little bit afraid to go to sleep at night because of the crime in the neighborhood," Collins says. "But she knows that we have two police officers on the corner sitting on mustang horses or stallion horses with shotguns on their side. ... A criminal is going to think twice about burglarizing that home, knowing there's a shotgun and a police officer and a horse on the corner, and he can be there in a few seconds. So he's got to think, 'Can I outrun this horse? Can I tote a TV?'"
As for the city's ongoing battle to hold state government to a 2002 Memorandum of Understanding — which promised new rail lines would only be built through the southern end of the Navy Yard — Summey says he hopes the lawsuit he filed against the state will "put them in a position where they've got to come back to the table" and work out a compromise. His vision for the Navy Yard, once the rail issue is settled, is to save the historic houses and bring in retail and offices. "After the base closure [in 1996], we went after anybody we could bring to create jobs. We're now being a little more selective in that and trying to bring higher-paying jobs."
In an April interview with the Post and Courier, Collins said he had no opinion on the rail conflict, arguably the most prominent issue in the city. "I wanted to be slow to give an answer," he now says. While he agrees with Summey that sending a new rail line across North Rhett Avenue would be disastrous for traffic in the up-and-coming Park Circle neighborhood, he says a rerouting through lower-income neighborhoods on the southern end of the Navy Yard could be just as problematic — even if those residents are less vocal with their complaints. Whichever way the rails go, he would push for overpass bridges so that new rail lines do not directly cross paths with roads.
The new Boeing plant is a feather in Summey's cap, expected to bring in about 3,800 full-time jobs in coming years, plus an estimated 12,000 jobs in offshoot industries. Summey credits the city's business-friendly environment for attracting the company, and he says a city employee was on call 24 hours a day during construction to do inspections when needed. He says he is a salesman for the city, and like any good salesman, he believes in his product.
But Collins says North Charleston residents have not gotten their fair share of the new Boeing jobs, especially jobs outside of the lower-paying labor sector. In future lucrative business arrivals, Collins says he would write up a contract to ensure that locals get a set proportion of the new jobs. "Whoever is coming to town, if we give you an incentive, you hire our people first," he says.
In recent years, Summey has made a pet project of the Park Circle neighborhood, which was originally built as a downtown area for North Charleston. He poured money into beautification and renovations in the Old Village, a strip of business space on East Montague Avenue, and the neighborhood has been transformed. Ten years ago, many of its residents were senior citizens, and the area was notorious for crime. Today, a crop of local businesses has sprung up, younger people are moving in, and crime is on the decline in the area.
Summey sees potential for the same sort of change in the Neck, the corridor leading southward to the peninsula from North Charleston (See cover story, p. 26). "Those folks deserve a quality grocery store," he says. Summey is starting with the renovation of Shipwatch Square, an abandoned shopping center at the intersection of Rivers and McMillan avenues where two grocery stores and a Walgreen's drugstore have already shown an interest in moving in. He is also talking with the county about building a new branch library on the site.
Collins agrees with Summey: What happened in Park Circle can happen in Union Heights. Parks in the Neck are in need of upgrades and upkeep, but he says that at some junctures, the city will have to make a decision between beautifying the landscape and rehabilitating old houses. "We can buy palm trees, or do we put air conditioning in somebody's house who doesn't have heating and air?" he says.
In the case of condemned and abandoned houses, the city sometimes decides they are not worth saving. Summey estimates that North Charleston has razed 3,000 structures to make way for new ones since he has been in office. "In a lot of areas, it has worked. In some areas, we've ended up with more houses we need to tear down," he says. "But we're not giving up on those areas."