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City Council, September 23

A bond issue by the School District?
Agreement on City Market Area and Maybank Highway widening
Marc Knapp

It was another of those meetings – lots of talk but not much substance. There were the usual recognitions, this time, for many of the baseball and softball teams in West Ashley. But unlike most other recognitions, there was no standing ovation from Council members. Council members, and the rest of us, wished for a quick ending. The other items that took up most of the 3 hour meeting included a presentation from the Superintendent of the County School District, a contract for management of the City Market area, and discussions relating to resolutions, in particular that for the widening of Maybank Highway.

We’re not sure why Superintendent Dr. Nancy McGinley sought to address Council. We can't say that such an appearance is unprecedented, but it certainly was unusual. She handed to Council some brochures which showed information she said was available on the County School system's web site. She then went on to laud the progress that had been made in the County schools and acknowledged that work still was necessary to raise the standard of those schools still failing. She noted the link between poverty and poor test scores. These problems needed to be addressed, she said.

Need for large capital spending
She and other representatives of the School Board went on to talk about the need for large capital spending in future. With the closure of the naval base in North Charleston, school enrolments had subsequently declined in Charleston County. But they now were rising again. And although there were plans to better utilize the existing schools, new structures still would be needed. The building program of the School Board could amount to $400 to $500 million. Of this amount, $125 million were for the 6 schools now being planned or built.

A bond issue is planned
And that was the clue for the purpose of the presentation. The School Board was planning to seek citizen approval in a referendum late next year for a $125 million bond issue.

We had a couple of thoughts about the Board’s building program. The first related to the financial acumen of the board. We understand that some of the board's projects have come in well above budget. We commented on this in Citizen’s Participation. One wonders in this economic environment how any building project could come in above-budget.

More need for “trade” classes
The second thought followed a question from Council member Gilliard that referred to the need for trade classes. He questioned the removal of such classes from Burke High School. Dr McKinley waxed enthusiastically about the Garret Academy, which offers trade courses. The Academy had been very successful and last year, its 120 graduates, bar one, had lined up jobs before graduation. Council member Gilliard and others have been calling for more opportunities for students to take trade courses at schools and Dr. McGinley provided evidence of how successful these courses were. Then why have they not been more widely introduced? That they haven’t seems a serious failing.

City formalizes management contract for Market area
The management of the City Market Area has been well discussed, and indeed a year or so ago, there were public hearings on its future. Last night, the City took the final step in awarding the contract to the City Market Preservation Trust LLC. There was no surprise in the general tenor of the agreement but there was in the details. The first related to the principals of the management company. Most of us that thought they were Hank Halliday and Steve Varn, both of whom own hotels and commercial space that abut the market area. Understandably, they have a vested interest in seeing the market area prosper. But there is a third principle, the Mayor revealed last night. It was Lawrence Thompson, once an assistant to the Mayor, but now a developer.

Unusual remuneration structure
The other detail was the remuneration of the management company. Firstly, it is to receive 6% of gross revenues for its services. This is a normal fee charged by property managers. Based on the present gross revenues of $1.4 million, quoted by the Post and Courier, the annual fee would be less than $100,000. But on top of this, the management company is entitled to 30% of the net revenues of the market, or a baseline fee of $165,952 a year, whichever is the largest.

Are these fees too high? It is hard to say. There is no doubt the management company has duties beyond those of a typical property manager. It is responsible for financing, much of the maintenance that normally would be born by an owner. It has to provide the vision for expansion and for the character of the market. It hopes to lure back local shoppers and lessen the dependence of the market on tour. But at the same time, all major capital expenditure will be borne by the City. And this includes extending the market to the other side of East Bay Street.

The agreement is for 7 years with the right of the management company to seek three more terms of each 5 years.

All in all, the management company has grand aspirations for the market area. We thought we heard “the best in the Country”. We hope the manager succeeds, for if it does, we are all winners.

Formal request to County over changes to Maybank Highway
Similar to the Market Area, there has been much discussion in relation to the intersection of Maybank Highway and River Road on Johns Island. The original plan which the County had adopted but not implemented was to widen Maybank Highway. This plan was opposed by the City. It proposed that Maybank Highway be left more or less as it is but 2 parallel roads to Maybank Highway be developed that would take traffic pressure off the intersection. Described as a “pitchfork” arrangement, the roads would also allow the development of the area as a “gathering place’ as defined in the City’s zoning code.

The City joined with the Coastal Conservation League (CCL) and the County to hire the consultant to study what the City’s proposal. The consultant supported it and made a lengthy presentation to Council last night about the plan and its virtues. On the table was a Resolution to be endorsed by Council to be sent to the County proposing that the City plan be adopted in lieu of that of the County. There was strong support last night for the City’s plan from those attending the meeting. I personally would rather have seen a round-about rather than what I consider an antiquated "pitch fork"design, which stops traffic rather that keeps it flowing. .

Cost of proposed plan was $27 million
Council member Mallard wryly noted that he received 200 e-mails on the issue of which four came from his constituents. The balance he presumed came from CCL supporters. He wanted to know the cost of the proposal and when it could be implemented. The consultant suggested a figure of $27 million for phase 1, which is the cost before integrating the extension of the Mark Clark. This is $3 million less than that budgeted by the County for its Maybank Highway widening project.

But the commencement of the project was not satisfactorily answered. Part of the problem may lie in the acquisition of rights-of-way from those owners of properties over which the new streets would be laid. The Mayor expressed the opinion that this would not be a problem and that indeed some property owners had already indicated that they would give rights-of-way to the City.

Some slow down in traffic speeds likely
Council member Wilson was concerned about the rest of Maybank Highway. She noted that a lot of people would be traveling along Maybank only to get to Seabrook or Kiawah islands. The consultant with a lot of help from the Mayor indicated that there would few other changes proposed for Maybank. And yes indeed, they may be some slowing down and select points along the route but the overall impact would not be significant. But this would be a small price to pay for the preservation of the rural ambience of Johns Island which the City plan would enhance.

Either believing in the project or worn out by all the talking, Council unanimously adopted the Resolution.