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Charleston Citizen Reporter: Gaillard Development Bold but Improbable

The Preservation Society of Charleston fired off another round last week in its battle with the city of Charleston over cruise ships and the Gaillard Auditorium.

The proposed Gaillard plan is bold but improbable. It is bold in the scale of the recommendations and the assumptions.

And it is improbable for a number of reasons, but particularly because all of the stars would need to be favorably aligned – the city, the State Ports Authority, the state, private donors and almost certainly the federal government – to fund the plan.

Could the stars be nudged into place? Possibly, but who is going to do the nudging? The only person likely to have the experience, power and persuasion is Mayor Joe Riley himself. And for a number of reasons I don’t think he will be available.

For those who have just arrived “from off,” the relatively new president of the Preservation Society, Evan Thompson, wrote an op-ed in the Post and Courier recently, suggesting that part of the State Port Authority’s Union Pier site be used to house a performing arts center, that the Gaillard Auditorium be torn down and be replaced with single-family housing, and the Cigar Factory be bought and renovated by the city to house staff.

The op-ed follows on the efforts of the Preservation Society and others over the past year or so to codify limits of cruise ship activity and shape the Gaillard development.

Three or four years ago, the suggestions made by Thompson possibly could have influenced the nature of the development of Union Pier and a new performing arts center. These projects are now under way and funds have been raised and committed.

But could the funds necessary for the developments have been any easier to raise?

The magnitude of the funding was and is well beyond that available to the city of Charleston – at least if the projects are to be completed in a few years. And is the State Ports Authority going to give the city the site needed for the proposed performing arts center?

The SPA has a major investment program in front of it that needs to be funded.

The city of Charleston, with a population of 120,000 or so, has a General Fund budget of about $130 million. It has a limited capacity to borrow. Borrowings for capital and other projects are now at a manageable level of around $150 million, and the city maintains a very favorable bond rating.

But the scope for higher borrowing does not stretch to hundreds of millions of dollars. And it’s doubtful that many residents will want to see a sizable increase in millage rates to fund major developments. Indeed, an increase in the millage rate necessary to fund such obligations would be subject to a referendum.

Charleston adjoins two other large municipalities – the city of North Charleston and the town of Mount Pleasant – with General Fund budgets of about $88 million and $67 million, respectively.

As their residents would share the benefit of a large performing arts center, would the municipalities contribute to the cost? The likelihood is nil.

Charleston County perhaps could be persuaded. Its General Fund budget, at about $160 million, is modestly bigger than the city of Charleston’s.

But for most, if not all the municipalities and counties of the state, times are tough. There is little scope for major borrowings to fund large projects. The total borrowings of the county amount to $200 million with General Obligation Bonds and another $100 million relating to the transportation sales tax.

This leaves the federal government and private donors. Observers can make their own assessments as to the likely contribution of both. With a massive budget deficit to rein in, the largesse of the U.S. government is likely to be less in the future, regardless as to which party is in power.

And with the economy struggling along, the benevolence of private donors may also be limited.

Riley has tasked the city with raising $71 million from private donors to complete the $142 million Gaillard renovation. The private donor kitty stood at $20 million or so some months ago and we have not heard of further contributions.

The mayor also has an African-American Museum to fund. It is projected to cost some $80 million and little so far has been raised. It’s doubtful Riley or the City Council are going to abandon this project, as they will most certainly have to move forward on it if they choose to fund Thompson’s proposal.

Warwick Jones is a Citizen Reporter for The Nerve and a resident of Charleston who has been involved with a number of organizations there, including the Charleston County Greenbelt Advisory Board and the Preservation Society of Charleston.

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