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Into the Looking Glass

Into the Looking Glass
January 2014
Wisdom for the Challenges Ahead

Nobody knows exactly what the future holds, but some folks know more than others. We reached out to professional “futurists,” consultants who know Charleston well, and local leaders to hear their thoughts, concerns, and hopes for Charleston’s future.

Robert Tercek:  Los Angeles-based consultant and innovation expert who has worked with Charleston Regional Development Alliance

Rebecca Ryan: “Futurist” and cofounder of Next Generation Consulting (Madison, Wisconsin) and author of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce’s “2013 Handprint” study

Bryan Derreberry: CEO, Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce

Winslow Hastie: Chief Preservation Officer, Historic Charleston Foundation

Tim Keane: Director of Planning, Preservation, and Sustainability, City of Charleston

Amy Holloway: President, Avalanche Consulting (Austin, Texas) and author of the CRDA’s 2011 “Opportunity Next” Strategic Plan

Whitney Powers: Award-winning Charleston-based architect and principal of Studio A Architecture

➊ What are the key things the Charleston metro region needs to do to balance a projected population of one million in 2040 with a preserved quality of life?
Robert Tercek: Before embarking on an aggressive growth plan, two questions must be answered: “What kind of growth is most valuable for this region?” and “What’s the trade-off? What gets lost, and what will be gained?” There are trade-offs to every decision, including the decision to limit growth. Likewise, some of the most exciting new businesses might not be compatible with the goals for regional growth, if for instance the new businesses are small tech companies, but job growth is the regional goal.  

Winslow Hastie: The deliberate stewardship of our resources is what continues to draw people here. We must maintain this deep respect for our historic landscapes and the natural environment. The biggest issue as we plan for unprecedented regional growth is transportation. Whether by bicycle, foot, bus, car, or some to-be-determined means, a range of mobility options must be explored and implemented, now, before congestion becomes unmanageable.

Tim Keane: First, we must accommodate growth and development in places that lend themselves to less travel by car, that allow people to be closer to work, school, shopping, etc. That means more building along existing streets and in existing neighborhoods rather than rural subdivisions, as well as mixed-use redevelopment of places like Citadel Mall. It means establishing, and enforcing, urban growth boundaries. Second, we need a regional plan for rapid transit, connecting the whole region together utilizing various technologies (commuter rail, bus rapid transit, streetcar). And we have to be careful about where we put our biggest places for jobs, concentrating them in locations efficiently served by rapid transit.   

➋ Charleston is about to undergo an unprecedented shift in leadership, across different sectors (city, university, etc). What are the qualities our new leaders will need to lead us into 2040?
Robert Tercek: What’s the difference between a manager and a leader? A great manager runs today’s operations well, but a great leader also has the ability to identify and evaluate new opportunities and to build consensus to pursue them. A knack for consensus-building is perhaps the most important. It’s easy to dream up neat ideas and plans, but execution depends upon getting all of the stakeholders into alignment and working together.
Rebecca Ryan: Some qualities, like vision and thick skin, are timeless. The bigger issue in this age is bipartisanship, how to work not just across the aisle but with constituencies that don’t see common ground.

Amy Holloway: Three things: new leadership needs to be adaptable, accessible, and accepting. The Charleston region will continue to attract entrepreneurs and creative go-getters drawn to the region’s quality of life, career opportunities, and innate pleasantness. Leaders need to be flexible and willing to adapt and proactively embrace new ways of thinking. Gone are the days when decisions can be made behind closed doors. Leaders must be accessible and interactive with the public.

Winslow Hastie: While the suburban population has exploded, our leaders must be cognizant that the historic core of Charleston is the epicenter of our economic prosperity. Any new mayor must accept the position of gatekeeper of this incredible legacy. The keen focus on historic preservation, urban design, the public realm—essentially good “city-making”—has to be continued, and it will not be easy. The college/university leaders need to do everything they can to mitigate the impacts of institutional growth on livability and collaborate on mutually beneficial coexistence.

➌ How will diversity shape our community in the future? How can it be embraced so Charleston can be globally fluent?
Rebecca Ryan: One of the key things I hammered on when we did Charleston’s Talent Study was that the region had to be open to people who are from other places and from different backgrounds. The Lowcountry prides itself on hospitality; we must extend that to all people, from all places.

Bryan Derreberry: Three centuries ago, our community was globally recognized for welcoming people of all religions. We need to help our community become that again. This includes thinking about how we welcome people, for example our airport signage is all in English. Changing this is a simple way to make sure international visitors feel welcome.

Winslow Hastie: While we’re seeing diversity in job opportunities (i.e. tech start-ups and the creative industry) and the culinary scene, we are also seeing the racial demographics of Charleston rapidly changing. The major factor driving this is housing affordability. As the well-heeled and hip continue to flock here, many traditional residents—black and white—are getting pushed off the peninsula. We must do everything we can to stabilize our historic communities and provide a wide range of housing options.

Amy Holloway: Great question. It’s happening. The 2011 strategy we created for the region includes a global marketing outreach to businesses. When those businesses and entrepreneurs arrive, will they find a culture that they can fit into? International networks where they can feel at home and meet others? International schools for their children? International cuisine and grocers? These things will evolve with demand, but planning ahead of time will encourage them to choose Charleston over other communities.

Tim Keane: We need to celebrate and accentuate the unique African influence on our place. Also, we should embrace new people from different places and traditions who are coming here now. All our children must be learning different languages. We need to integrate new cultural traditions into our policies and practices.

➍ What needs to happen in terms of planning for traffic and transportation?
Robert Tercek: Efficient transportation is more than improving logistics for manufacturers. It is a question of quality of life for residents. Traffic jams and lousy transportation options deter families from moving to a particular region, depriving growing companies from attracting new talent.

Rebecca Ryan: We need to put work and home closer together. There is so much space between our housing clusters and our work clusters, resulting in transportation lags.

Bryan Derreberry: The Chamber’s Infrastructure Vision Task Force has identified 18 top infrastructure priorities, ranging from harbor deepening to I-526 completion to a long-term strategy for I-26 that includes transit and alternative modes. Our state’s gas tax has not been increased in 27 years. Local taxpayers in all three counties voted to invest in transportation through local sales taxes. Those road-building and highway enhancement projects have been very successful. As a region, we must find funding solutions without relying on Washington and perhaps even Columbia. We have to be innovative and get started now.  

Winslow Hastie: Local governments, nonprofits, and the business community need to have a candid discussion now about our options for addressing mobility and congestion. We must move away from an automobile-centric mind-set, and this will require a significant investment in alternative means of transport. Maybe we should bring back the streetcar? Make it more convenient to walk, bike, or take transit. The city needs to assess the traffic impacts of new developments in a more comprehensive way, and these projects should contribute to a “transportation infrastructure fund” that could subsidize improvements such as better bus kiosks, bike lanes, shared parking facilities, or streetscaping.

➎ What do you see as the biggest challenges for Charleston?
Robert Tercek: Charleston is positioned between two other communities that might serve as models for very different potential futures: Savannah to the south and the Research Triangle to the north. The Research Triangle is clearly oriented towards the future and technology-based growth, whereas in my experience Savannah is mostly devoted to preserving the past (apart from SCAD). The ideal is a balance between the two: preserve the best parts of Charleston’s past and continue to foster the booming tourist trade, but find nonintrusive ways to establish a foundation for future growth, perhaps in the areas outside the historic core.
Rebecca Ryan: Mind-set. Can the region’s leaders from business, government, and education be proactive (rather than reactive) towards the future?

Bryan Derreberry: The biggest red flag is inertia. As a region, we tend to study things to death. We don’t have that luxury any longer. We need to develop actionable strategies and immediate implementation plans today to address these issues and act upon them now.  

Winslow Hastie: Preserving the rural fringes so that we can maintain our wonderful urban/rural balance, the twinned issues of housing affordability and gentrification, and the quality of new construction.

Tim Keane: We don’t have an effective way to plan and implement big projects at the regional scale. This is particularly important as we undergo leadership changes. To manage land use and implement great rapid transit will require specific ways for our cities, towns, and counties to work together.

Amy Holloway: Ensuring that the region has the talent supply and skill sets needed to fuel economic growth. Continue to boost educational programming around STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills, which will benefit existing employers and prepare for the next generation of businesses.
Whitney Powers: We must consider what metrics and values will allow the Charleston region to remain a great place to live and work. We cannot deny the area’s urban and architectural past, but rather can see it as evidence of our predecessors’ aspirations and the raison d’être for how we’ve reached this point and how the contemporary buildings and institutions that follow can similarly contribute to the landscape.

➏ What are the bright spots, the things we are well-poised for, as we look into the future?
Robert Tercek: We are fortunate to be alive in the most remarkable era in human history, when most of our material needs are easily met (in the developed world). Energy is relatively cheap, and the cost of manufacturing is dropping. For entrepreneurs there has never been a better time. The question for Charleston is: What steps are you taking to foster innovation, entrepreneurialism, knowledge workers, and the information economy?   
Rebecca Ryan
: Everywhere we turn, there are opportunities for meaningful growth: exports and the port; startups and high tech; aerospace and engineering. This is not “shallow growth” that can be easily blown away by an economic downturn. It has taken root; it’s the kind of deep growth that can spur so much more.

Whitney Powers: The most wonderful signs of hope include expansion of the area’s parks to include the linear park, the “Low-line,” and the rise in the numbers of bicyclists. Also more families with children are choosing to live downtown, near Hampton Park, or in older neighborhoods in Mount Pleasant or West Ashley/James Island, with parents committed to neighborhood schools.