As epiphanies go, it was a pretty mundane moment.
Ed Pendarvis was at a Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce meeting, listening to College of Charleston President George Benson talk about economic development and what the terrain will look like in the 21st century. Benson noted that economic regions were more often identified with cities than with states: Charlotte, Atlanta, and Raleigh-Durham, for example. Would Charleston ever be in the league with those towns? Would its name be synonymous with an industry, the way Charlotte is with banking or the way Raleigh-Durham is with high-tech research?
If that were to happen, Pendarvis reasoned, a number of things would have to happen first. One of them would be the corporate merger of Charleston and North Charleston into one city, under one mayor and one city council. In the competition for commerce and industry, one big city is better than two medium-sized cities.
"It only makes sense," Pendarvis says. "In bringing Charleston and North Charleston together, we create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It would be better for everyone."
Since that realization, Pendarvis has been a man on a mission, working and thinking daily about how to bring his vision — he calls it One Greater Charleston — to reality. So far he's just one guy with a website (onegreatercharleston.com) and a pitch.
That pitch is simple enough: Charleston, the second-largest city in the state (pop. 120,000) and North Charleston, the third-largest city (pop. 97,500), would become the largest municipality in South Carolina and the marquee city of the Palmetto State.
In the process, it would reduce bureaucracy and economize on municipal services, such as recreation, sanitation, and the fire and police departments. One Greater Charleston would have more muscle in Columbia in dealing with such agencies as the State Ports Authority and the Department of Transportation and in lobbying for funds from Washington.
Though Pendarvis is unclear on the details, he says One Greater Charleston would have a broader tax base, lowering taxes for all. North Charleston does have the largest sales tax base in the state. How that city would feel about sharing its revenues with the lower part of the peninsula one can only guess.
"I truly, truly believe everybody's taxes would go down, and I believe everybody's property values would go up in One Greater Charleston," Pendarvis says.
Pendarvis has a lot of faith but not much practical experience in his quest to unite the two cities. He admits that he has not done much research into the technical and legal aspects and does not have an attorney to help him work through it.
The concept of combining municipalities has some history in this country, and in at least one case, it truly changed the political and cultural landscape. In 1898, the Five Boroughs of New York, their counties, and all municipalities therein were consolidated to create "the town so nice they had to name it twice."
More recently and much closer to home, the little towns of Batesburg and Leesville, in western Lexington County, were mashed into Batesburg-Leesville in 1992, but with a combined population of fewer than 6,000, their experience does not seem to offer much guidance to the two coastal cities.
A number of major American cities, including Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Denver, Nashville, and Kansas City, have merged governments with their surrounding counties to achieve greater efficiency. The results have been mixed but generally favorable. But merging a city and a county does not spark the local pride and prejudice that seem to reside in municipalities.
Then there's the issue of annexation. For years the City of Charleston has been trying to annex its way through the suburbs of James Island, as the islanders have put up a fierce resistance. Four times the residents have incorporated the town of James Island, and four times Charleston has gone to court and had the incorporation struck down. Today, the city continues to chip away at the island suburbs, annexing a few residences or businesses at a time, but the message is clear: A lot of James Island residents just don't want to be a part of Charleston.
So why would North Charleston welcome the opportunity?
It's a different situation, Pendarvis says. This would be a merger of equals. The two cities have a lot in common, including history, demographics, and a name. In fact, a lot of local landmarks, including the old Charleston Navy Base, Charleston Naval Weapons Station, Charleston Air Force Base, Charleston International Airport, Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, as well as dozens of businesses with "Charleston" in their names, are actually located in North Charleston.
"This would be like a marriage," Pendarvis says. "It would be a mutual relationship and like all good marriages, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." And like traditional marriages, one partner would adopt the name of the other. There was never any question in Pendarvis' mind what the new city would be called: Charleston.
If the towns have similarities, they also have differences. Charleston was founded in 1670 and has an old Southern charm, to say nothing of old Southern houses, neighborhoods, and historic sites. After more than three centuries, Charleston is still one of the largest ports on the East Coast, but its economy today is built on tourism. Some 4 million people come here every year to take in the sights and enjoy the cultural and culinary pleasures of the city. In October, Charleston was rated the No. 1 tourist destination in the United States by readers of Condé Nast Traveler.
North Charleston was incorporated in 1972, pulling together several suburbs, in part to keep Charleston from annexing everything in sight. It has a distinctly blue-collar feel about it. In the past, it was a military town, with all the rough and rowdy connotations of that title. In 2009, it was ranked the 22nd most violent city of over 75,000, according to Congressional Quarterly Press. The navy base was closed nearly 20 years ago and other installations were severely pruned. The economy has rebounded in recent years, based on shipping and manufacturing, including the Boeing Dreamliner plant that opened earlier this year. And thanks to the Northwoods Mall area and the new Tanger Outlet Center, North Charleston boasts the highest retail sales in the state.
By way of a history lesson, Pendarvis says that the late Charleston Mayor Palmer Gaillard was looking at a major annexation in the "north area" in 1970. He was already reaching deep into West Ashley and looking across the Wappoo Cut to James Island, but what he really wanted was to bring the navy base, the shipyard, the air base, and the municipal airport into the city.
Then, in December 1970, Congressman Mendel Rivers died, ending his 30-year grip on the First District House seat. "Mayor Gaillard, and every other politician that could, jumped into that race for Congress," Pendarvis says. Gaillard did not go to Congress, but the campaign apparently distracted him from business at City Hall. While he was campaigning, several leaders north of the city got busy, and in 1972, they were ready to announce the new City of North Charleston.
It might have been a good idea then, Pendarvis says, but it is holding back both cities in 2011.
Pendarvis has more than a vision — he has a plan. He would have the councils of both cities put the issue of a municipal merger on the ballot for referendum. He seems supremely confident that it would be approved by voters in each city, if they only had a chance to choose.
The new city of Charleston would be formed with an adoption of ordinances by councils of each city. After a transition period, the unified city would hold municipal elections in November 2015, and the merger would be complete.
To take advantage of the leadership of both cities through the transition, Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey would each take a turn at the helm, with Riley serving the first two years as mayor of the new city and Summey serving as mayor pro tempore. Then they would switch. Based on this schedule, it is clear that Pendarvis expects the merger to be approved by voters and city councils in the coming year.
What makes this all so tantalizingly feasible, Pendarvis says, is that both mayors are not just extraordinarily effective leaders, but are widely respected, not just in their own cities, but in their neighboring cities. And, as Pendarvis points out, the two mayors respect each other. Perhaps most importantly, Riley has declared that he would not seek another term in 2015, eliminating the possibility of a bitter rivalry between the two mayors for the top job that year.
The new city would have a population of more than 197,000 and cover 154 square miles, reaching into three counties. As to where the new city government would be housed — in Charleston's historic City Hall at the Four Corners of Law, or in North Charleston's new $37.5 million City Hall, which opened in 2009 — that's one of those details that remains to be worked out.
The stars are aligned for this merger, Pendarvis says. "I haven't had anybody say it's not a good idea."
So why isn't his plan drawing more support? Perhaps no one wants to be the first to step forward. Or perhaps the consolidation of the two cities really is more problematic than it appears.
State Sen. Robert Ford might have the answer. His district straddles the two cities and he knows them well. "Both are great cities, but they are as different as night and day," Ford says.
Ford says that Charleston is "elitist," while North Charleston is "definitely blue collar." And their mayors reflect their respective cities.
"Don't get me wrong," he says. "They are two of the best mayors in the country, but North Charleston and Charleston are two of the most different cities in the country. No way that's going to work."
State Rep. David Mack III, of North Charleston, is also skeptical. Theoretically, there are some great ideas in the Pendarvis plan, he says, but the cities are too different in character. "I don't see it happening ... They cannot work together on smaller issues. I don't see them able to come together." He called the two cities "politically entrenched."
Nor can Mayor Joe Riley offer any encouragement. Although Riley says he has known Ed Pendarvis for many years and that he's a wonderful gentleman, the mayor doesn't believe the One Greater Charleston merger idea will go anywhere. He adds that Charleston and North Charleston are stable and viable cities in their own right and neither has anything to gain from such a merger. Riley does not see it as an issue and does not believe anyone will bring it before council for consideration.
Mayor Keith Summey did not respond to several requests for comment, but North Charleston Councilwoman Phoebe Miller was quick with her opinion. "It would have been a wonderful idea back in 1940," she says. "I think it's a great idea, but honey, it's not going to happen."
Miller says the mayors have different agendas. She says, "It won't happen as long as Riley and Summey are mayors."
She points to Charleston's Board of Architectural Review, which tightly regulates development and renovation in the old portion of the city. Riley strongly supports the BAR in his town. Summey is against anything like that in North Charleston. "Our ideals are different. Our goals are different," Miller says.
North Charleston Councilman Ed Astle has similar views. Pendarvis' plan is "an interesting concept," he says, "something that maybe should have been done 100 years ago, though North Charleston is only 40 years old."
While Pendarvis had worked out the relationship between the mayors in his proposed new city, what about the fire chiefs, the police chiefs, and all the other department heads, Astle asks. "These departments have different styles and traditions," he says. "[Pendarvis] has just looked at it from the political side of the issue."
Astle also brings up the matter of taxes. "What's the advantage for the people of North Charleston?" he questions. "I think we have a better tax base. We have an industrial base and more retail base. Charleston doesn't have any industry."
Ron Jones, chairman of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, sounds a now-familiar note. "In theory, I think it's a great idea," he says, "but I don't see the Chamber supporting it. The Chamber has a whole lot of other fish to fry ... A lot of business leaders would agree that it's a good idea, but will not support it for the same reason."
Jones says he was not aware of any elected officials who support the plan.
Ed Pendarvis clearly has his work cut out for him. But he has a long history of getting things done. He founded a business brokerage company in Charleston in 1980, franchised it across the nation, and sold it in 2006. He has chaired the Charleston County Democratic Party and People for Parks, which successfully lobbied for funding for more parks and green space in Charleston County. Perhaps more on point, he sat on the board of the Department of Youth Services in the early 1990s, when he facilitated its merger with the Department of Juvenile Justice and Aftercare. Can he do it again with two very proud and different Lowcountry cities?
Pendarvis is shaking hands and making his case with appearances before Charleston and North Charleston city councils and the Charleston County legislative delegation. He's scheduled to go before the Chamber of Commerce in January. So far, no public figure has signed on to support it.
But this is the time to act, he says. Riley and Summey have just been re-elected to lead their cities for four more years. In early 2012, the two mayors and their city councils will be sworn in. This is the time to set the agenda before they are distracted by a myriad other issues. This should be the most important thing they will discuss in this term, but they won't discuss it unless their constituents tell them they want it to happen.
Ed Pendarvis is waiting for the people to speak. The only question is will they?