Editor's Note: Tale of Two Cities 

IN ALL the hubbub over our own City election—early voting is going on this week! — not many folks in Savannah know that up in Charleston they’re had a mayoral runoff of their own.

In Charleston’s case, however, it’s not an incumbent facing a disgruntled electorate and fighting for a second term.

There, the runoff was because longtime Mayor Joseph “Joe” Riley is stepping down after 40 years in office.

Not a typo—that’s 40, as in four decades.

Over time, I personally am becoming more in favor of term limits across the board. That said, if there were ever a compelling argument against term limits, Joe Riley personifies that argument.

A jaunt through Charleston is to a large extent a tour of his legacy. The South Carolina Aquarium, for example, is one of his major initiatives, and like many was widely derided when first proposed.

Fifteen years after opening, the S.C. Aquarium is set for a major expansion centering on its Sea Turtle Hospital, which is quietly but rapidly becoming a major world center for such research.

You don’t have to agree with everything Riley has done to see and appreciate the impact. For example, I personally am opposed to a cruise ship terminal in Savannah. But there’s also little question that the associated Aquarium Wharf development in Charleston has revitalized that particular area of town.

A short walk down Calhoun Street from Aquarium Wharf you find Emanuel AME Church, “Mother Emanuel,” site of the horrific mass murder of congregation members by a racist killer.

click to enlarge Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston
  • Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston

While the church isn’t a tourist attraction per se, there is a steady, significant flow of people of all races and backgrounds visiting the site, solemnly leaving mementos and respectfully taking photos.

One of the signs out front, which might ordinarily feature the title of the week’s sermon, simply says “Thank You.”

One of the great legacies of Mayor Riley since his first election in 1975 was forging a lasting, effective coalition of African Americans and progressive whites—no trivial accomplishment in a city which was once the cradle of the North American slave trade and which hosted the start of the Civil War.

This coalition is in large part responsible for the peaceful aftermath of the Mother Emanuel tragedy, and Charleston’s rejection of social unrest in its wake.

You don’t have to try too hard to see the contrast with Savannah, where our politics are still largely defined by a degree of racial animosity and working at cross-purposes.

Up in North Charleston at the decommissioned Navy Yard, right next to the conservation lab for the Civil War submarine Hunley, is the huge new Clemson University Energy Innovation Center.

The Center was built with a U.S. Department of Energy grant to explore new options in wind turbine research, which will make our electric grid more efficient, more green, and help fight climate change.

As the huge turbine blade on display out front graphically shows, this is literally cutting-edge research.

The scope, ambition, and potential global impact of this one project dwarf anything going on in Savannah right now, a city which likes to fancy itself as Charleston’s close competitor in most things.

click to enlarge The Clemson/SCE&G Energy Innovation Center
  • The Clemson/SCE&G Energy Innovation Center

Think of the educational institutions here: SCAD, Armstrong, SSU, etc. Now think of all the missed opportunities for public/private partnerships with those institutions, whether in research or in projects with street-level impact. (Indeed, Savannah Tech seems to be our only real success story in this regard.)

In this issue I also write about a wonderful achievement on the part of our local Deep Center, which this week receives a prestigious White House award.

In addition my huge respect for what Deep does, I’m also struck with the enormity of the problem they’re trying to address, and how in some ways Deep finds itself swimming as much against the educational tide here as swimming with it.

Simply put: It’s consistently up to small, underfunded and understaffed nonprofits in Savannah to do some of our most vital work! And that just isn’t ideal.

There is a disconnect here, and it runs very deep (no pun intended). The contrast with Charleston—where political, civic, and business leaders have a long track record of working with each other beyond sociocultural boundaries— is stark.

(UPDATE: The winner of the Charleston runoff is new mayor-elect John Tecklenburg. One part of his platform was advocating a one-year moratorium on building new hotels in downtown Charleston. Do you think such an idea might have merit in Savannah? Do you see anyone here likely to propose such a thing?)

And it’s something to keep in mind as you vote in the Dec. 1 runoff. Early voting is going on now at the Voter Registration office at 1117 Eisenhower 8 a.m.-5 p.m. You need NOT have voted in the Nov. general election, but you must live within the City.

You know what to do!


About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for 15 years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more


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