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The Advocate: Let’s take action to create the Charleston we want

By Jay Williams, Jr.

In near-record numbers, the tourists are back. After our long COVID-imposed respite, we’re not ready for them. And after watching their behavior, they’re not ready for us, either.

The pandemic was tough on Charleston. The virtual lockdown, the riots, the loss of dozens of restaurants, the empty storefronts, the dirty sidewalks. The city’s website still claims King Street “is the most vibrant and distinctive downtown in America.” You be the judge.

Some believe that we’ll quickly go back to a pre-COVID normal, whatever that was, but we can’t go back. Things have changed. Our visitors have changed, and so has the city. Neither for the better.

“Tourists Gone Wild” could be filmed here, especially on weekends. Bottles and cans are tossed under street trees, babies are propped up next to window boxes for photos, large walking tour groups roam across driveways and gardens, bachelorettes snap selfies in residents’ doorways, all accompanied by the unnerving soundtrack of screeching tires and revving motorcycles, loud radios and carriage drivers yammering about earthquake bolts.

This maniacal scene plays out in downtown and on Lower King all day. On East Bay, it’s worse. And on Upper King after 10:00 p.m., well, that’s another story entirely.

We have all these challenges without the cruise ship passengers. Enjoy this bliss while you can.

Lest you think this is an anti-tourism rant, it isn’t. But not all heavily touristed cities remain livable. Consider Venice, Dubrovnik or Barcelona. Our city is dependent on tourism, and we should embrace it. However, being dependent on tourism doesn’t mean we should be subservient to it. Let’s find solutions while we still can.

As Winslow Hastie, president and CEO of Historic Charleston Foundation, says, “Charleston is a living city, not a stage set.” He’s right. Now let’s tell that to the tourists.

Today’s vacationers are on the cutting edge of travel. They’ve had enough rules and regulations, enough of staying home “to stop the spread.” They’re adventurers, ready to make up for lost time. For many, Charleston is a stage set ready for them to walk on and act … out.

Charleston isn’t prepared for the onslaught. The tourism enforcement department — repurposed for months to enforce the mask mandate — has six officers to monitor some seven million people a year riding on carriages, pedicabs, bikes, tour buses … a task that would be formidable for 20 officers.

Competing walking tours, once limited by a requirement that tour guides pass a knowledge test, now resemble street gangs, blocking sidewalks and spilling out into the streets. Tourism management officers must harness the bad operators among them.

As Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society, says, “Tourism has become a mobility issue — residents are finding it difficult to move around the city. There’s a surge in tourism, and frustrations are growing that the approach we’ve taken during the past decade is no longer working for people who live and work here.”

We need a new plan

We know that some landlords want to put short-term rentals on the second and third floors above some King Street storefronts. Tourism decisions that will have an enormous impact on a large number of residents can’t be made in a vacuum; not only would the character of King Street be altered, but adjacent neighborhoods would also be affected.

The old 2015 Tourism Management Plan was hugely successful. It brought all concerned parties together — city officials, tourism and hospitality leaders and neighborhood and preservation groups.

Meanwhile, years have passed, and there are new issues to address, including those short-term rentals that didn’t even exist in 2015. It’s time for a new 2021 Tourism Management Plan. And before we draft that plan, Hastie implores, “Let’s create the tourism goals first.” If we don’t know what we want, we can’t possibly get there.

Councilmember Mike Seekings believes that we should “think about tourism from the inside out, from the lens of the residents. It’s a quality-of-life issue.”

Hastie believes it’s time that we move from a “tourism marketing model” to a “tourism management model.” King agrees, adding, “We need to manage tourism better; we need to make tourist industry a long-term value added for the city.” We have enough tourists. We need to improve their experiences while they’re here. That will help ensure a more livable city for our residents.

Let’s also investigate best practices, such as those organized by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), which points to markets like Sonoma, California, that changed their “Destination Marketing Organization” to a “Destination Stewardship Organization.”

Hastie also recommends holding annual tourism management meetings with city officials, other key players, and most importantly, the residents. We’re all in this together. Continuing transparency and communication are vital to ongoing success.

Cruise tourism should also be part of the new plan. The Advocate has been reporting on the local cruise industry for a decade. In the early days, the South Carolina State Ports Authority (SPA) CEO told residents that Charleston would only be a “niche market” for cruise ships. Since then, we’ve hosted bigger ships, more sailings and tens of thousands of additional passengers. An early independent survey predicted that the economic benefits of home-ported ships for Charleston would be minimal; intervening years have proved the validity of that study.

Councilmember Mike Seekings put his finger on it when he said: “The SPA and Carnival are making hundreds of millions taking people away from Charleston without paying any benefits to us.”

The Advocate previously highlighted the asymmetrical impacts of cruise ships. The SPA gets the benefits and Charleston gets the problems of traffic, congestion, litter, soot, sulfur dioxide and low-spending browsers wandering through the city waiting to embark. Taxpayers must spend money to manage these wanderers and clean up after them. It’s time to confront the SPA and get our share of passenger fees. The SPA has obstinately and relentlessly sidestepped the city’s entreaties, even resorting to categorizing cruise passengers as “maritime cargo.” When the two-legged “cargo” steps off SPA property into Concord Street, let’s funnel them past a kiosk to get the money we deserve — that our city needs. That idea is not entirely a joke; it’s time to end this embarrassment.

Let’s also nominate a strong business-oriented panel to negotiate with the SPA. And let’s impose responsible, reasonable zoning limits for Union Pier consistent with the zoning in our historic downtown. It’s adjacent to the city center, and it must be properly developed to maintain Charleston’s unique character.

A long-range vision

King, Hastie and Seekings all agree that we must develop a new Tourism Management Plan, first focusing its goals. Importantly, they all independently agree on something else: the need to revive the city’s Economic Development Department.

The Downtown Business Alliance is valiant effort, but King Street is challenged not only by problems but also by a changing retail environment, online shopping and the city’s encouragement of retail shops in new buildings across town. Economic challenges aren’t limited to King Street.

The city should resuscitate an Economic Development Department to serve as a data resource, to attract a diverse mix of businesses to the city and to work with neighboring cities to develop an attractive regional vision. A new Economic Development Department would encourage needed vertical integration among other city departments such as planning, transportation and sidewalks that could all work together to develop a unified action plan for the city’s — and King Street’s — future.

Let’s act before it’s too late.

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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