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Charleston Mayor Delivers Arts, Economy Multi-Million Formula

The arts, public grounds/parks and historic preservation are “the three basic reasons, the initiators” of Charleston, S.C.’s phenomenal change, keynote speaker Mayor Joseph Riley told Art & Creative Economy Conference guests, town and county officials Wednesday.

“I believe (this) works anywhere,” emphasized the nine-term Charleston mayor, who has been at his city’s helm over 30 years.

Riley described downtown Charleston as almost dead in 1977, the year the Spoleto Festival USA debuted there. “But the arts, all those people coming, and all the flowerings started” igniting the rebirth of the downtown district.

However,  the seminal course change almost floundered.

Initially composer Gian Carlos Menotti started an arts festival in Spoleto, Italy in 1958, and a North American “sister city” was sought.

Charleston went courting, but some on the committee were not delighted with all aspects of the Italian festival – finances were described as a mess - and worried a similar event in Charleston might have a negative impact on the community and the existing arts.

Riley - backed by the committee’s 6-5 vote tabling the disbandment motion - fought for Spoletto Festival USA, “to make ourselves a stage for the arts.”

The city began raising money and cleaning up for the event.

Today, the 17-day Spoletto’s phenomenal impact on the arts and economy continues. “Spoletto began the artistic renaissance of Charleston. It’s never been so robust, but it goes so far beyond that,” he added, naming development of magnet schools for the arts at the high and middle school level.

The arts also are being used as a unifying theme to reach kids in an inner-city school.

“We are teaching everybody,” added Riley, describing the wonderful spectrum of the city.

The quality of life in Charleston also makes recruiting easier for businesses, Riley noted, with one businessman naming that asset as making it easier for him to recruit the employees he needs.

Historic Preservation
In the early 20th century, some wanted to tear down Rainbow Row, recalled Riley. “The ladies rose up, taking a stand for preservation,” he recalled.

Today, Charleston boasts the first Preservation Ordinance in America.

When the historic buildings are preserved for adaptive reuse, the structure takes on a forever aspect, according to the mayor. “You can’t create this from scratch,” he added, emphasizing the city’s historic preservation as one of the three basic reasons for its great revival and success.

Public Parks
“It is very important that there be public places,” emphasized Riley. “The more the better. The public realm is so important,” he repeated.

Vision, a hefty $750,000 private donation and creative negotiations with a property owner ultimately resulted in the city’s Waterfront Park.

“No one can imagine Charleston without Waterfront Park,” added Riley. “The community adores it. The moral imperative is that we make sure the city is an inspirational place for everyone,” he said.

The park also elevated the notion of the public realm, going to the extra effort to create beautiful places for the public, according to the mayor.

Charleston also fought for a bridge with bike and pedestrian paths, opening yet another avenue to the public, recalled the mayor.

“Great towns or cities, the size doesn’t matter, these principles are universal,” said the mayor, who speaks with almost 34 years experience as a master of transition in Charleston.

Prior to Mayor Riley’s introduction, one county businessman and civic leader observed: “I hope people can connect the dots linking the arts and the economy and ask, ‘Why not here?’”