The Medical University of South Carolina will open the first phase of a massive expansion plan this week — an unexpected, $400 million hallmark in Charleston's mayoral race.
The $275 million Ashley River Tower and the buildings set to follow are being funded through a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mortgage loan. While Mayor Joe Riley no doubt campaigned for the cash, his opponent, William Dudley Gregorie, headed HUD's state branch, shepherding the money through.
In his eight years leading the state office, South Carolina's HUD dollars went from $600 million to over $1.4 billion, Gregorie says. Reclamation of the brownfields at the Magnolia property, along with various homeowner initiatives, also came with support from Gregorie and HUD.
"I'm the one candidate, other than the mayor, who can point to a record of the kinds of things I've brought to Charleston," he says. "I'm not one of those candidates who's just talking. I'm also walking."
Born and raised on the Charleston peninsula and a graduate of Burke High School, Gregorie returned to Charleston after retiring, now ready to lead the city with a renewed focus on the residents and less on the guests.
"Tourism is a great thing," he says. "But there needs to be a focus on the people as well."
Money on large capital projects could be better spent on day-to-day resident concerns like sidewalks, roads, and storm drains, Gregorie says.
His campaign is better funded and more visible than Riley's two other opponents, but Gregorie's gotten the most attention for his criticism of the city's handling of the Sofa Super Store fire on June 18 that killed nine firefighters. Investigations are ongoing, but preliminary concerns have included the type of hoses used, the equipment firefighters were wearing, and the management at the scene of the blaze, along with deeper, unrelated concerns about the city's antiquated approach to firefighting.
Though he has called for Chief Rusty Thomas's exit — a controversial move that may drive some voters away — Gregorie says that it's beyond a simple problem with department leadership.
"I clearly feel there is a need to change the culture of the fire department totally," he says. "The chief is just one component of change. But as I continue to listen to our mayor and his blind faith in Chief Thomas, I begin to wonder what is really going on at this point. ... No one is being held accountable ... Friendship and nepotism is getting in the way of good judgement."
Much like several City Council candidates competing Nov. 6, Gregorie is calling for the city police to return to foot patrols and to offer home incentives to tether officers to the communities they protect. The candidate is calling for developing a "healing police force," saying that "there's a lot of strife between the police and people in our neighborhoods." Another important factor in combating crime is fixing our schools, Gregorie says.
"There is a clear correlation between reforming our education system and making our streets and neighborhoods safe," he says. "Our education system is merely a portal to the criminal justice system."
He'll appoint a deputy mayor for education to lobby for changing the school board's structure (creating single-member districts more accountable to constituents). Another push for Gregorie is education opportunities for newborns to three-year-olds.
"It's very important that our early childhood approaches start early," he says. The program would also include parental instruction for "babies having babies."
Gregorie would also push for more vocational programs so teens graduate with skills they can market.
"My head would not be in the sand as mayor of this city as children of this city continue to fail," he says.
Workforce housing should continue to be a priority in new developments, Gregorie says, as well as a recognized effort to preserve "the flavor of Charleston."
While projects along Spring and Cannon streets are well intended and well designed, the new look is making Charleston seem like Every City, USA, Gregorie says.
"I'm for development, but I'm for preserving the flavor of this city and the culture that makes Charleston Charleston."
Gregorie's work at HUD has also included assistance in North Charleston to establish the New Horizons mixed housing community, while developing similar projects in Columbia and Greenville.
"The only major city in this state that has opted not to participate in these programs has been the City of Charleston," he says.
Change in Charleston over the next four years will be evident. Magnolia will begin building a new community in the Neck, MUSC will continue its expansion, new developments will be plotted around Marion Square and the Charleston Market, and change in the fire department is all but inevitable. The question voters will answer Nov. 6 is whether Mayor Riley can guide the changes or whether there needs to be a new man in his shoes.