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Can Mt. Pleasant turn the page?

The Advocate

Joe Daniels is a man on a mission and he’s determined to succeed. But the odds are long, the natives are restless and the knives are out.

Joe is trying to bring something new and daring to a town wanting neither. More importantly, he’s trying to bring something to the Lowcountry so monumental that it will be revered for generations. If he can get it built.

Joseph C. Daniels is the new CEO of the new Medal of Honor Museum proposed for Patriots Point in Mt. Pleasant. The good news is that after flailing for years, the museum’s board has found the right man for the job. The bad news is that this CEO doesn’t have much time to turn things around.

This is Joe’s second great mission. You know about his first: The 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, built on the former site of the World Trade Center. He became president in 2006 and when he left in 2016, the 9/11 Memorial Museum as the third highest-rated museum in the United States and the sixth highest-rated in the world.

How tough was that first mission? “It was borderline impossible,” Joe replied, given the hundreds of competing and conflicting ideas about what to do after the twin towers were brought down. “Think about 9/11, the emotions and the pain were so raw and real. The remains of over 1100 of the victims there have never been recovered; families have had no ritual of laying their loved ones to rest. It’s almost a spiritual experience as 9/11 families come to touch the names of their loved ones at the Memorial.”

Joe’s second mission, the Medal of Honor Museum at Patriots Point, is a political football. Previous directors alienated Mt. Pleasant officials by taking what one said was a “my way or the highway” approach. Officials and residents, determined to put a lid on development and height limits, balked at the proposed 140-foot height of the museum partly due to concerns that it could set an unfortunate building precedent.

Mt. Pleasant’s eventual “no” vote was emblematic of problems inside the Medal of Honor Museum. Early last year, Gen. James Livingston, a high profile local Medal of Honor recipient, quit the board, taking others with him. One reason was that the Museum had hired CEO Mark Updegrove at a salary of $400,000 a year. He quit after less than a year. William “Bill” Phillips serves briefly as interim CEO.

Now the museum has turned the page on the past, but has the town? Joe Daniels joined last month and his first tasks are to calm the waters within the organization and mend fences with Mt. Pleasant officials and residents.

Joe Daniels must also raise money — a lot of it. The museum has about $20 million in hand, including $5 million from the state. But according to the museum’s lease with Patriots Point for the eight-acre site, construction must start next year with completion by 2021. At least $75 million must be raised to start construction.

What kind of man would take on such a challenge?

Joseph C. Daniels was a corporate lawyer in New York before Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked him to head the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. Yet when Daniels presents himself, there are few vestiges of lawyer or New York in him. He’s cheerful, affable and approachable, perhaps because his wife and three kids, 15, 13 and 10, keep him in line. Except for being a Yankees fan (he’s excited that the RiverDogs are a farm team), there’s nothing abrasive about him, but his determination and focus on this monument is just below the surface.

The Medal of Honor, our highest military honor, has been awarded for valor in combat since the War Between the States, symbolizing the timeless American ideals of courage, patriotism, sacrifice, integrity and humility. Daniels is moved by the monument’s purpose and also by the inspiration it gives to average Americans to be brave and idealistic in their own lives. “We’re all looking for things to bind us together as Americans. The Medal of Honor and what it means is one of those things people will rally around to hold us together.”

Greg Reaves, principal at Safdie Architects, designers of the three-building monument, visitors pavilion and chapel, said the site has two sides. “The visitors pavilion facing the town is low with a green roof that slopes down to the park-like landscape. Then as you ‘cross over’ from the vegetation to the waterfront side, the design of the monument building relates to the larger scale of the harbor, the Yorktown, passing ships and the Ravenel Bridge. The geometric design represents the stars of the medals themselves.”

The grounds will be open to the public and a series of boardwalks planned out to the water will provide a tremendous public benefit.

Joe Daniels understands that, “The Medal of Honor Museum is a nationally important project, but for people who live here, it’s a local project. It’s all about how we engage the community going forward.”

But Mt. Pleasant officials, elected to stop development and large projects, are resistant to the height and scale of the proposal. Joe Bustos, chair of the planning committee of the Town Council, notes, “There have been many battles about height in Mt. Pleasant and what we’ve promised the residents can’t be undone. We want the museum, but it doesn’t have to be 140 feet tall. I do like that Mr. Daniels has come in and we’re here to work with him … but he has a tough hill to climb. Find something that is respectful and does the job of telling the stories.”

But what is “respectful,” and what is it respectful to? Should a national museum dedicated to the nation’s highest military honor, situated on a great harbor surrounded by great structures that can be seen from across the river, be guided by the current height restrictions on a site that’s unlike any other in town? Or should our “respect” be guided by the high purpose and design of the project, by the impact it will have on visitors and locals alike and by whether it will compare and compete favorably with the greatest monuments in the world 50 years from now?

Although Mt. Pleasant officials are rightly concerned about growth and development, the Medal of Honor Museum represents neither. It is a striking monument to our greatest, bravest Americans that, paired with the mighty Yorktown, should form a grand waterfront gateway and a proud introduction to Mt. Pleasant.

Will Mt. Pleasant officials have the courage to engage their citizens about this once-in-a lifetime opportunity, one that shouldn’t be squandered or diminished?

Can Mt. Pleasant turn the page?

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.

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