Town officials brainstorm future
Town Council gathered last Friday for an all-day brainstorming session on Summerville’s future.
With Jon Pierce, senior fellow at USC’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, facilitating the discussion, council members talked in broad terms about what they hope Summerville will look like in five years and in some detail about the obstacles that could hamper that vision.
Completion of the Berlin G. Myers Parkway.
A boutique hotel downtown.
Steady, manageable growth.
An expanded historic district.
A new roadway leading from the Sheep Island interchange into town.
A civic center in town.
Commuter rail to Charleston.
Those were some of the things council members said they would hope to see if they returned to Summerville after a five-year absence.
Councilman Bob Jackson said his Oakbrook district is becoming blighted, while a few miles down the road North Charleston is attracting high-end retail.
“We may end up with that whole area looking like Heritage Square,” he said, referring to the deteriorating shopping center at the corner of U.S. 78 and the Berlin G. Myers Parkway.
Councilman Bill McIntosh said growth will return to the Lowcountry as the economy recovers, but the town needs to position itself to attract that growth.
The town can make changes now to its regulations, taxes, planning and to the way staff implements policies to make the town more competitive, he said.
As an example, McIntosh pointed to the Publix in Knightsville. When that shopping center was being built, the developers wanted to annex to take advantage of the town’s allowance of Sunday beer and wine sales.
But when the county changed its laws, the shopping center lost the incentive to annex, he said.
Now, with some bars that allow smoking within the shopping center, the center is unlikely to annex because of the town’s smoke-free ordinance, he said.
“That’s part of the regulatory fabric,” McIntosh said.
As part of the exercise in prioritizing issues, council members individually scored issues and pooled the scores into a group ranking.
As a group, they ranked infrastructure first.
Next came public safety, followed closely by annexation.
Holding the line on taxes while maintaining the current level of service was fourth, and setting a direction for town and maintaining the town’s character tied for fifth.
Traffic congestion lowers the quality of life and drives people away, council members said.
From Exit 199 to downtown Charleston can take close to an hour during rush hour, McIntosh said, and that’s not including the 20 to 30 minutes to get to the interstate.
Councilman Walter Bailey, a lifelong Summervillian, said his son and daughter-in-law moved to West Ashley to be closer to work.
“It’s not a theoretical concern,” he said.
Years ago, McIntosh said, someone in Knightsville could drive 10 miles out of the way, through Jedburg, to save time, but that shortcut no longer works because of increased development and more drivers on the road.
The proposed road from the Sheep Island interchange, at mile marker 197, would lead to the Berlin G. Myers Parkway and to Parsons Road and the Knightsville area, Mayor Bill Collins said.
It’s crucial that road be built, he said. Construction on the interchange will begin in a few months, but the road to Summerville isn’t yet a sure thing.
The town increased the franchise fee last year as a way of raising some money toward the cost of the new road.
Council also liked the idea of a commuter rail.
It’s incredible to think that 150 years ago there were lawyers who lived in Summerville and commuted via rail to downtown Charleston, yet workers today can’t do the same, McIntosh said.
Even at the 30 miles per hour of those old trains, the commute was comparable to today’s gridlocked interstate, he said.
Council members said Summerville is a safe place and the crime rate has been decreasing, but that’s not necessarily the way it feels to people.
Lots of residents feel like this is still a sleepy little town and think certain crimes shouldn’t be happening here, McIntosh said.
Also, there’s no formula for replacing police equipment on a regular schedule.
“The way we fund public safety is pretty haphazard,” Councilman Terry Jenkins said.
In late 2011, the town used some of its savings to buy new police cars. But the town would need to buy perhaps 60 cars in short order to catch up to a regular replacement schedule, Jenkins said.
The police keep the cars clean and painted so they look nice, Bailey said, and don’t appear to be in as bad shape as they are.
Very little is happening with annexation – and that’s the problem, Bailey said.
Annexation has been haphazard, McIntosh said, with the town extending down Dorchester Road to take in the Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site and yet having “donut holes” littered throughout town.
“They are in Summerville in everybody’s mind,” he said, except legally.
People in those donut holes – the unincorporated county surrounded by the town – get the benefit of town services because police, even though they can’t respond to those addresses, have a presence as they drive through to get from one part of town to another, Jenkins said.
Council talked about hiring someone to work full time to convince residents to annex. But it’s an emotional issue, McIntosh said.
People on James Island would have saved money by annexing into Charleston, but “no amount of facts could convince that other half of James Island,” he said.
Town officials are also feeling threatened by neighboring municipalities. Goose Creek and North Charleston are boxing Summerville in, Bailey said.
Both municipalities seem to have annexed huge swathes of land by sheer force of will, when mass annexations seem all but impossible to Summerville officials thanks to state law.
Part of the reason is that North Charleston annexed developments like Wescott while they were under a single owner, Collins said.
But part of the reason is they just did it and braved any potential lawsuits, the mayor said. If the town were to go that route then there could be no waffling from council members when it came time to vote, he said.
The old Armory
The town needs to decide within the next year or so what it will do with the old National Guard Armory on North Hickory Street, Collins said.
Council members came up with two options: using it for indoor recreation, like basketball and volleyball, or using it for a new police headquarters.
McIntosh said the armory used to serve as a social center for the neighborhood and was rented out for dances and political gatherings.
The armory is next to Doty Park, which used to serve as the center of the town’s recreation. The neighborhood’s children were ill-served when the town moved baseball and football to Gahagan, no longer within walking distance, he said.
Jackson, who investigated the armory as a potential civic center, said he had gotten estimates of $1.7 million to upgrade the building and deal with the asbestos.
Using it for recreation should be less expensive, he said, as that retrofit wouldn’t include the kitchen and other upgrades in his estimate.
On the other hand, the police will need a new building fairly soon, Collins said.
Moving the municipal court to Town Hall from the police station bought the town about five years before the police need a larger building, he said.
Collins said Police Chief Bruce Owens said the armory would work, but McIntosh wanted to know where Owens would ideally locate the police headquarters if he had a choice.