Managing Growth without Unfair Exceptions: “Watch Status” for Charleston

Posted on: June 17th, 2011 by Guest Writer

Written by Dr. George W. McDaniel

This past Wednesday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced its 2011 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, which spotlights places across the country that are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, or insensitive public policy. For the first time in its history, the list has been supplemented with a site placed on “Watch Status”: the city of Charleston. The Watch Status means that a specific threat to a historic site appears to be growing, but can be avoided or controlled through collaboration and innovation. In the case of Charleston, the Trust believes that expanding cruise ship tourism, without adequate enforceable controls, could jeopardize the historic character of the city, historic downtown Charleston and its surrounding neighborhoods. Accompanying this announcement, the Trust has offered to assist with finding a balanced solution that benefits the community and its rich cultural heritage.

Partners in preservation: George McDaniel and John Hildreth arrive at the Mayor's office.

The series of events leading up to this point have been well documented except, perhaps, for one. On May 16th, John Hildreth, executive director of the Trust’s Southern Regional Office based in Charleston, and I met with Mayor Riley to express our concerns related to the issue; Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, joined the discussion via phone.

During the meeting, John and I articulated both the deep, Trust-wide concern for the future of historic Charleston and the concerns of numerous residents and business people who love Charleston. Specifically, I spoke from the perspective of Drayton Hall, which, thanks to its board and staff, is not a staid house museum but is rather one of Charleston’s valued historic sites fully engaged in the vitality of its community. Together, John and I emphasized the irony in Charleston’s having established itself as a model for other cities in the way it balances tourism, preservation, and urban life, only to now forgo the opportunity to build on that tradition and to devise as Mayor Riley likes to say, “world-class solutions” to the current issue. While the meeting was positive in many ways, John and I were unsuccessful in achieving any meaningful agreements or compromises as we’d sought to accomplish that day.

Of course, that wasn’t the only example of actions being taken behind the scenes. At its April 29th meeting, Drayton Hall’s Site Advisory Council joined other organizations and residents and voiced its deep concern for a range of issues related to cruise ships, including the lack of enforceable management of the industry, by writing a letter to Stephanie Meeks, National Trust president. At that time, the “Watch Status” designation had not yet been created, so our Council endorsed designation of the city to the Trust’s 11 Most Endangered list with the goal of focusing attention on the threats to city’s unique historical character.

It should be noted that the designation of this Watch Status by the Trust is not about being anti-port, anti-jobs, or anti-cruise ship as some have characterized it, but instead is prompted by a general concern for the future of the accomplishments in preservation, tourism management, and urban life made by Charleston’s leaders and residents over the years. The concern is that while there is a voluntary agreement between the city of Charleston and State Ports Authority (SPA) about cruise ship growth, it is voluntary only, and the final decision rests solely with the SPA. Who else gets to do this? Everyone in downtown Charleston, whether they are hoteliers, restaurateurs, carriage drivers, tour bus operators, or property owners, has agreed to live and work with legally enforceable regulations. Why should the cruise ship industry be the exception? The purpose of this watch by the Trust is, therefore, to help find solutions to such questions.

Read more about Charleston’s “Watch Status” and post your comments on the Charleston "Watch Status" site.

Dr. George W. McDaniel is the Executive Director of Drayton Hall, a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, located in Charleston, SC.

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