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Promenade’s demise signals tough times for Riley’s Neck Area TIF

Lee Walton

Tough times and storm clouds seem to be gathering over the lower Charleston Neck as Bobby Ginn, one of Charleston’s more recent and much touted deal-estate developers, quietly threw in the towel on his major 200-acre mixed-use redevelopment project proposed at the site of two former County land fills along the Town Creek waterfront. David Slade’s article, “Hotels out, rail yard in,” in last Saturday’s Palter and Chatter was as informative for what it didn’t say as for what it did. The Ginn Company’s proposed Promenade Project, conveniently located within the lower limits of the City’s 2004, $117 million Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District, had been the subject of much spirited community debate, praise from the usual sycophants, and gleefully anticipated by Charleston’s world-class visionary leader, Mayor J. Pericles Riley.

Just three short years ago, albeit before that rose-colored sky in Rileyworld was blackened by clouds from Wall Street, Riley praised Ginn’s announcement of his Promenade redevelopment project in the Palter and Chatter’s February 12, 2006 article, “Ginn sees land of opportunity,” and predicted it would be the domino that would set in motion a rapid transformation of that “gritty” part of the peninsula. “Is it real? It’s real,” he said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity.”

Now, according to Slade’s most recent article, Pericles has had to swallow a super-sized portion of credibility crow and now claims that – “My instinct was, if there was a feasible plan to enhance the Port of Charleston, the maritime industry, then we would be very supportive.” Riley’s double-speak, blatant hypocrisy, and flip-flopping are world-class. All he wants now is any opportunity to get BMW out of the Port’s Union Terminal at the east end of Market Street so he and his deal-estate cronies can redevelop it and stitch a tourist path together up to the end of Calhoun Street where his quintessential ‘White Elephant”, The SC Aquarium, sits almost vacant most of the time along with it’s surrounding, albeit foundering, Aquarium Warf commercial development and now defunct I-Max Theater. Five years ago Riley didn’t give a rip about port related activities in the Neck and cajoled his handpicked Council to pass zoning changes that made it all but impossible to operate port related container shipping and storage facilities on the Peninsula outside of the Port Authority’s Union and Columbus Street Terminals.

Far from the “trillions of dollars” Ginn predicted his Promenade’s target market and the hoped-for buyers of Ginn’s and Riley’s dreams would inherit in the coming decade, it now appears certain that this is the same “target market” of the Obama Administration that will inherit “trillions of dollars” in future tax liability needed to pay for the current federal stimulus bail-outs. A scant 18-months ago, anyone predicting the economic paradigm shift that has frozen real-estate investment and slammed consumer confidence to the core would have been branded a fringe lunatic. Now even Pericles must take a chance on any feasible alternative that offers a possibility to implement other less glamorous development options, however unpalatable.

But a return to port related industrial land uses in the lower Charleston Neck would not stimulate the type of residential and commercial redevelopment Pericles needs to repay the debt service on his Neck Area TIF bonds. Without an initial redevelopment project like Promenade to entice continued private investment, there will be insufficient growth in the tax base to repay the City’s cost to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure within the Neck TIF District. The loss of Riley’s Promenade domino theory will also chill private development investment within the larger Magnolia Project needed to pay the special assessment debt service for the Magnolia Municipal Improvement District bonds.

In all probability, the intended type and scale of redevelopment of Charleston’s Neck Area has been dealt a serious, if not fatal, blow by the ongoing severe global recession. Time will tell if other fledgling Neck Area and Bridge District deal-estate developers can weather the current financial crisis, or go the way of Lehman Brothers, GM, and Chrysler.

One thing’s for certain, Pericles will have many more sleepless nights while his visions of a modern-day Athens between the Rivers slips further from his grasp as the sands of his time continue to run out.

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