Early last week, Charlestonians found their worlds the tiniest bit shattered by the news that Travel+Leisure listed this fair city among our nation's snobbiest. Some were unhappy that Charleston didn't take the top spot in this category while others found amusement in the "honor." Certainly some also secretly wondered if this would hurt Charleston's brand. After all, what good would it be to win another Condé Nast poll if people are just going to skip over us for being haughty?
In the long term, though, it isn't Charleston's "snobby" status that could hurt the city's reputation as a tourist destination. What is going to hurt Charleston, however, is development that has no regard for the effects it has on the community.
Of course, there is probably not much need for worry in the short term. After all, Travel+Leisure did an about-face the next day and named us the No. 1 city in the U.S. and Canada (which means, I think, that either there is no editorial cohesion at the magazine or they are just making this all up as they go along). At any rate, work is progressing along nicely on the various hotels around the peninsula, with about 1,500 rooms being added to the total number currently available. To be fair, there is also a public housing proposal before the Board of Architectural Review Bar right now, but it too carries a certain whiff of gentrification about it.
With all of the care and effort the city puts into the BAR, one would think equal care and consideration would go into how it handles traffic and parking. Apparently, this is not the case. The two-mile trip down Meeting Street from I-26 to Broad Street can take around 20 minutes or more in peak summer traffic. Now imagine what will happen when there are 1,500 more hotel rooms. If there's a city employee or agency in charge of infrastructure, it would be nice to know their plans for dealing with this influx of people. After all, tourist season in Charleston runs from somewhere around April right up through October, and it will only get longer if we keep winning "awards" and "honors" from magazines catering to the idle rich.
On the other hand, Charleston could draw down on tourism and continue instead with developing itself in the manner of the much-touted Silicon Harbor. While this sounds more productive, dealing as it does with creating jobs that are high paying and not in the service industry, it might not be a better solution. After all, any plan that is not thought out has drawbacks and continuing down the Silicon Harbor route has its own share. In fact, the drawbacks to this plan involve pretty much the same problems as turning the city into a vacation postcard, except this time the problem could bring with it higher housing prices instead of a lack of housing.
The online magazine Alternet recently ran a piece detailing how the amazing job growth in San Francisco (12,000 new jobs in the last 18 months) is eroding the city's historic neighborhoods and its "unique character." These are exactly the complaints heard from critics of over-development in Charleston's tourism industry, and they could easily apply to a poorly planned boom in our "tech sector" economy as well.
Building up hotel capacity without even considering the peninsula's already overworked streets is a recipe for disaster. Bringing in new jobs focused exclusively on one sector of the economy, particularly one weighted toward the highest salaries, is not much better. Balanced systems work better than ones tilted too far in any one direction, after all.
Should Charleston give up on being a tourist destination? No, not even if we could. As a historic coastal town, we'll always be near the top of nearly every list. Nor should we decide not to grow a functional technology sector or shy away from job growth in that field.
However, the city's leadership has a responsibility not just to the people who visit here or the ones who might want to live here, but to those people who are already living here. That those people could find themselves cut out completely from a living, breathing city is not just a public policy failure, but a human failure as well. Patchwork ordinances designed with public relations in mind and a refusal to meet serious infrastructure, housing, and wage problems head on will only lead to our city becoming history instead of making it.