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Shrimp 'n Grits

New City Market deal – a quintessential Riley quid pro quo
Lee Walton

Honestly folks, you just can’t make this stuff up! Emboldened by nods, winks, and a few who’re forever asleep at the switch, Mayor Riley slipped another of his classic deal-estate development moves over on his bought-by-the-pound band of lackeys at last Tuesday’s City Council Meeting. With out even a single raised eyebrow or hesitant thought, that emasculated little band of shameless public servants rubber-stamped Riley’s choice for the new management team that includes one of the mayor’s largest, long-time political contributors and one of his closest, consistent behind-the-curtain political operatives.

As reported by that wonder of Columbus Street, David Slade, in last Wednesday’s Palter and Chatter, “The three principals of the new management company, City Market Preservation Trust, LLC, are local hotelier Hank Holliday, real estate professional Steve Varn and businessman Laurie Thompson. Holliday and Varn own more than 300,000 square feet of commercial space in the vicinity of the Market…Holliday has been one of Mayor Joe Riley’s larger campaign contributors and Thompson is one of Riley’s former administrative assistants.” If the story ended with the new City Market deal, it would be condemnation enough, but the trail of intertwined associations and previous dealings among other closely aligned heavy-hitters within Riley’s inner circle just gets better with age.

Lawrence O. Thompson’s formal association with Riley began in the early 1990’s as the mayor’s Economic Development Director after he served for several years as a key aid to Senator Fritz Hollings. As Riley’s Director of Economic Development, Thompson was a lightning rod for several high visibility, often controversial, city development deals including Majestic Square, the Aquarium, and an aborted attempt to develop a significant portion of the Ripley Light Development into a casino gambling complex. While working for the City, he continued to manage WAVF Radio with his business partner, The Beach Company, until both sold their interest in mid-1996. He then assumed the dual role as Housing and Economic Development Director under Riley.

As the new century began, Riley tapped Thompson as his executive assistant and chief political advisor; all the while Thompson continued his development company, LOT Inc., teaming up with Hill Construction Co. on a new, albeit star-crossed, project a Point Verona on James Island. During mid-decade, with the ever-present assistance of Riley and other key members of the Mayor’s inner circle, Thompson continued to broadened his influence as a member of the Board of Visitors of the College Of Charleston, became special advisor to Charleston Place, and was appointed to the City Market Task Force to study improvement options and the current city management lease with the Christopher Company who had managed the Market since the late-1970’s. In 2007, Thompson became Riley’s campaign manager and orchestrated Riley’s historic reelection as 9th term Mayor of Charleston.

At last Tuesday’s Council meeting, Riley defended his choice of the City Market Preservation Trust LLC proposal as the best presented to the City. We all know after three and a half decades that Mayor Joe would never play favorites and reward his loyal contributors and members of his political inner circle with a special deal. That would be just mean-spirited and cynical of us poor, unenlightened, and ill-informed taxpayers

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, in Riley’s City it’s a quid pro quo - nothing more, nothing less. Wake up Charleston!

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