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City Council, November 12

A natatorium for the City?
A belated attempt to restrain helicopter tours of the City
Marc Knapp

When the College of Charleston decided recently to close down the Stern Center, it probably had little idea of the reaction. The Center houses an indoor swimming pool and without which, the College’s swim and dive team dies. Last night, the members of the team, perhaps thirty or so, turned up to the City Council meeting. Speakers noted the benefits derived by the community of the College’s swim and diving programs. They sought the City’s help in some way to preserve the programs. The City responded enthusiastically and probably went beyond the expectations of the students.

The Council was told that the College plans to redevelop the Stern Center site at George Street and replace the existing structure with an office building. Financial support for the swim and dive teams would cease as there no longer would be a pool. It was also stated that the funds for these teams would be re directed to support a lacrosse team.

Speakers during the Citizens Participation period included students and College alumni. All spoke in favor of maintaining the swim and diving program. They noted the contribution that members past and present had made to the community in providing life guards at municipal pools and beaches, and as swim instructors. They also cited the discipline instilled into them from regular training and the contribution that this made to ability in confronting and enduring life’s issues.

It was very predictable that the pleas got the attention of Council member Wilson. The Council member is a long distance swimmer, in fact, a very long distance swimmer. She has swum the English Channel, the Hawaiian Channel, and almost, the strait between the North and South Island of New Zealand. Last night, she noted she has been swimming for 40 years and that morning had swum 8000 meters. “It’s the lifestyle”, she declared.

Council member Wilson has long been a supporter of better swimming facilities in the City. In an emotional and convincing speech, she enthusiastically supported the College speakers. She too noted the benefits, physical and mental, of swimming. She also noted that unlike other sports' scholarships, all those who received scholarships for swimming graduated. It was clear in her speech that she had in mind more than the provision of facilities only for the college students. Here was the opportunity to provide something for the whole community - maybe provide something that would place Charleston way up on a national level in the world of swimming facilities. Not only would the community benefit directly, but there could benefits by drawing national competitions and visitors to the City.

There was only support for Council member Wilson in the ensuing discussion. The support was genuine but it did not necessarily mean success. A natatorium (an indoor swim pool) will be costly and the financing will mean getting the County and College on board. And where will it be built? We understand that the City will meet with the President of the College to discuss options. And depending on those discussions, the City will seek talks with the County and others.

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The only item of note on last night’s agenda was an ordinance to prohibit the provision of sightseeing services by air over the Peninsula. I spoke in Citizens Participation against the introduction of the ordinance. I thought it was an unnecessary intrusion of the City into a business venture and that if the City thought it was a safety issue, it was mistaken.

When the item came up for discussion, it seemed that many Council members agreed with me though for some, for different reasons. At the conclusion of the discussion, Council voted unanimously for the ordinance but most indicated support only for the first reading. Members were unhappy about the present wording and intent and expected modifications before it came back for a second reading.

We spoke to the owner of the air service that planned the sightseeing tours. He stated that the land (behind Santi’s on Morrison Drive) and helicopter to be used cost about half a million dollars. He presently offered air services out of Johns Island. And he expected that sightseeing tours would account for about half of the business on the Peninsula. As the Mayor stated, the proposed ordinance was “after the fact”. It would only stop others applying to provide the same sort of service. The service presently proposed was legal and this operation would be “grandfathered in”. He also noted that Council in shaping the proposed ordinance could create a “sunset’’ provision – a time in future beyond which operations would have to cease. In support of the ordinance, he said that the Peninsula had its own set of pressures presently and didn’t need another with helicopter tours.

On the face of it, there seemed merit in what the Mayor said. However, the owner of the proposed business said that tours would not be over the City but along the waterways. But it was not this that made a difference. It was the fact that the City had no control of aircraft flying over the City. Heliports could be set up in surrounding municipalities from which sightseeing tours could be conducted. Effectively, there was nothing the City could to stop these tours.

Council members who spoke were generally unhappy about what was proposed and wondered whether sufficient thought had been given to the ordinance. They also drew parallels the bar closing ordinance and the adverse impact of acting prematurely. A few spoke about their unease in banning an enterprise. If the City wanted to control aerial sightseeing, it should write an ordinance that strictly defines the activity, not ban it.

We think this proposed ordinance will die, or at least, be severely modified.

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