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City Council Meeting - February 22

First step taken towards an African American Museum
But financing hurdle is high
Marc Knapp who covers City Council

As usually happens, the Mayor got his way. At issue was $250,000 of funding to make a preliminary study for a new African American Museum. But in fact, the issue was the museum itself. To approve the funding, the final objective had to be endorsed. After a spirited debate, the funding was approved, but not unanimously. Council members Shirley, Fishburne and George voted against the proposal. All black members of council voted for the funding.

Concern about high projected cost - and remember the Aquarium
Those council members that voted against the motion were not necessarily opposed to a museum in concept. They were in varying degrees concerned about the estimated cost, not only of the construction, but subsequent running. Council member Fishburne did question the need for the museum considering the many museums of similar nature that had been built or proposed in other parts of the country. These council members must have memories of the Aquarium. For whatever reason, perhaps politeness, they did not make too much of a comparison between it and the proposed museum. But the history of the Aquarium looms heavily over this issue. The estimated cost of construction at this stage is between $50 to $60 million, having escalated from $40 million 2 years ago. And considering the massive escalation of the cost of the Aquarium -from an original $10 million or so to over $80 million ultimately, the faith in the estimate by the City for the new museum understandably is not high. And then there is the question of viability - will the revenue it draws match or exceed its running costs? After all, the Aquarium needs about $1 million a year from gifts and grants to break even

Most funds to come from private sources
Mayor Riley stated that most of the funds would be derived from private sources. Yes, the City would make some contribution, as most likely would the County, State and Federal Governments. And yes, fund raising would be a challenge. The Mayor also spoke of the importance of Charleston in the history of slavery in this country and how the port was the major entry point for slave traffic. Locating an African American museum in Charleston was more justified than anywhere else in the nation. He didn't say it, but Council member Campbell did - the museum, to be located adjacent to the Aquarium could help improve the economics of the latter by drawing more people to the area.

Why not use the Charleston Museum?
As expected, yours truly had an opinion on this issue and expressed it. The opinion is very close to that of the dissident council members. The projected price tag is very high. The price also takes no account of stocking and running the museum. Maybe more thought should be given to this. And finally, Charleston already has a museum. It could easily be given over to serve the purpose of the proposed museum. Being located across from the Visitors Center, it would be well located to serve tourists. And whatever establishment costs are involved, they would be a fraction of $60 million. But using the Charleston Museum would not serve the Mayor's purpose - to enhance the area around the Aquarium. So we don't think re-location will be an acceptable option.

Will the Mayor be able to raise the funds?
Despite the blessing of council, we are not convinced the new museum is a certainty. The $50-$60 million price tag is a lot of money and although various governments will contribute, the bulk of funding will need to come from gifts and grants. The Mayor reported difficulty in raising money for preliminary work -only $179,000 raised in the last 2.5 years. How hard were the fund raisers working? How much harder will it be to raise say $40 million or so from private sources? After all, the conspicuous sources of funds contributed heavily to the Aquarium and are probably still giving. They may not open wide their pocket books this time round.

Citizens press for better planning
It is always encouraging to see citizens expressing their opinions at Council meetings. There was a large turnout last night in relation to a re-zoning on James Island. In a sense the location is not material, but for the record, it related to a 10.8 acre parcel of land at 2317 Canal Street that was to be rezoned to residential. The residents wanted a classification that did not allow such a high density of housing and one that matched the surrounding area. They got their way with a recommendation for the rezoning to rural residential - reducing the subdivision size from 39 to about 30 lots. James Island seems to be bearing the brunt But some of the speakers spoke in broader terms about how James Island seems to be punished with a high incidence of re-zonings. In consequence, it suffers traffic and congestion problems, not only from re-zonings on James Island but on the Peninsula and elsewhere in the City. Mr. Joe Qualey, a member of the short lived James Island council, drew gasps from the audience when he mentioned some of the other developments that Council had approved. He received an ovation from the crowd when he criticized the laxness of the council. He turned the tables on some of the council members who spoke disdainfully of those who did not support the new museum and their lack of concern. Mr. Qualey asked whether the council members were not guilty of the same thing. He instanced a public meeting on James Island to discuss local issues. Only one council member turned up - Council member George.

Mr. Qualey and the members of the public are right. Action needs to be taken on James Island and elsewhere in the City to alleviate the traffic and congestion that has developed with growth that seems almost unrestricted.

Why "affordable housing" on Ansonborough Field?
Warwick Jones of Charlestonwatch spoke at last night's meeting about the "affordable housing" planned on Ansonborough Field. Why is such valuable real estate being used for "affordable housing"? Those who qualify for "affordable housing" can usually only pay between $100,000 and $150,000 a unit. But the market value of these units is probably close to $300,000 to $350,000 a unit. The subsidies from the City will need to amount to about $200,000 a unit. With 100 "affordable" units planned, the effective subsidy will amount to about $20 million. Why not sell this housing at market rates and use the $20 million for real "affordable housing" where it is needed - on the East and West Sides, and the Neck areas?

We were not surprised that the Mayor ignored this comment but we were surprised when Council member Lewis later in the evening came out and virtually endorsed the comment. There will be no "affordable housing" on Ansonborough Field he opined. It is not just not possible. He too wanted to sell all the housing on Ansonborough Field at market rates and use the proceeds for "affordable housing" where it is needed and real estate is cheaper. His comment seemed to stun the mayor who retorted that they would try their best to ensure there was "affordable housing" on the site.

Affordable housing at Longborough to be finaced by land sale
And on the subject of "affordable housing", Mr. Jones attended the Real Estate Committee meeting where the Mayor revealed that a parcel of land fronting the parking garage on Concord and Cumberland Streets (near Ansonborough Field) was to be put out to a Request for Proposal (RFP). The proceeds from this were to be used to fund "affordable housing" at Longborough. This housing is to be provided by the Beach Company, the developers of Longborough, at a cost to the City of $125 a sq foot. How many units there will be depends on the size of each unit. The Beach Company is obliged to provide the City with a total of 40,000 sq feet, so there would be 40 units if each unit were 1000 sq feet.

Similar to our comments on Ansonborough Field, if the units at Longborough were sold at market rates and the proceeds used to finance real "affordable housing", far more units could be provided. Unless the sales prices are heavily subsidized, people who really need affordable housing cannot purchase these houses. And if the subsidies are the usual $30,000 to $50,000 per unit, then it would seem only those earning over the median income will be able to finance such purchases. And we would question why the City is providing subsidies to those people when there are so many more needy people waiting for help.

Yes, the Golf Tunnel again
You thought that the best part of $2 million was more than enough to spend on a tunnel connecting the two halves of the municipal Golf Course. Well, the cost has gone up again. At the recent CPW meeting, we learned that a water pipe line that lies close to one of the entrances to the proposed tunnel will have to be relocated. The cost? $250,000! There was no comment from the Mayor or council when we told them last night.
Your Comments:

I sent a note to you via letters@charlestonwatch etc. to check whether my eyes were deceiving me about new $250,000 golf tunnel cost overrun. As I read it you said this out loud at Council which was heard in stony silence. Was the P & C there? The general public ought to know this. Suggest your forwarding this astonishment to them, whether letter to editor or whatever. Comedy beat goes on.

Mike Malone

Posted by: Michael Malone at February 28, 2005 07:19 PM