This was a week of big, important lessons – about correcting grievous mistakes of the past, about the danger of collective delusions, about the proper role of government and the potential abuses thereof, and about our moral obligation to the planet. The following news items are troubling but promising, remorseful but optimistic, and, most importantly, I hope if they are occasionally maddening and frustrating, they will also inspire and motivate.
First, on the inspiring side, the Post and Courier reports that the developers of West Edge, in downtown Charleston across from Brittlebank Park and the Joe Riley baseball stadium, are planning to extend Hagood Avenue south of the Crosstown. This project would connect the isolated, blighted mishmash of county and state office buildings, 1970s hotels and public housing with the medical facilities and neighborhoods to the south.
Long time civic activist, Bill Saunders, and I explain in this Post and Courier op-ed why the Hagood Avenue decision could be transformative for the city. The Crosstown, which opened in 1969, was a manifestation of institutionalized, government-enabled racism. The expressway destroyed the predominately black neighborhoods along its one mile route and created a scar across the peninsula from which those communities could not recover… until, potentially, now.
Like all opportunities, this one depends on competent and timely execution – by the city of Charleston and the S.C. Department of Transportation – but most importantly, it depends on involvement and support from citizens. It was the absence of civic outrage and opposition that allowed the road to be built in the first place. It will be the energy and enthusiasm of the community that ensures its rehabilitation.
This next section is a test. Imagine that you live in a country where the government owns the power company. Imagine that the state owns and operates a freight railroad and the major port facilities, and that the agency in charge of the port proposes to build a state-owned terminal for cruise passengers.
Further, imagine that a judge rules that the neighborhoods and businesses adjacent to the terminal may not object to the project. And then imagine that the city council files legal action in the case… against the neighborhood associations and public interest groups – against you – and on behalf of the state agency and the international cruise line.
You can be excused if you concluded that the country in this thought exercise was Romania under Ceausescu, or Yugoslavia under Marshall Tito. But the place I’m describing is none other than our own South Carolina, a state which prides itself on its conservative traditions and its commitment to capitalism and free markets. (Our first constitution was, after all, written by John Locke.)
I have puzzled over this paradox for many years. While South Carolina presents itself as a bastion of independence and freedom, one could argue that it operates more like a country of the old fashioned Soviet variety.
Let’s put aside for a minute the merit of socialism and state control of the means of power production, transportation and industrial development. Instead, let’s focus on the problems that arise from operating under the delusion that South Carolina is a model of free markets and fair trade when the circumstances are quite different.
Perhaps the most important problem is that the public, and the voters, do not appreciate the power elected leaders have in this hybrid world, where some commercial entities operate within a competitive economy, like the system we learned about in high school and college, while others are either creatures of the state – authorities, agencies, public service districts and such – or are showered with generous financial subsidies, like elegant new terminals for international cruise ship companies.
I say that if we just admit that South Carolina is a quasi-socialistic government, we could move on and figure the best way to manage it. It’s the illusion of freedom and capitalism that prevents us from holding the decision makers accountable.
If this is a bitter pill to swallow, (and it certainly is for me, as a native South Carolinian), this piece from the Post and Courier may help illuminate things. David Wren reports that the S.C. State Ports Authority (SPA) owns 317 acres of waterfront property in the town of Port Royal. In the early 2000s, they stopped using the facility. Since then it has sat idle. Twelve years ago the General Assembly passed a law requiring the SPA to sell the property.
The site offers a superb opportunity to bring private businesses and housing to the waterfront, to create a public park and to give the town of Port Royal an economic shot in the arm, bringing valuable property back on the tax rolls. (The SPA pays no taxes or fees.)
But twelve years later, the SPA has not sold the land. They’ve overpriced the property, sandbagged potential buyers and otherwise obstructed the sale process. Thus, the property lies abandoned, a blight on the town and the waterfront.
Senator Tom Davis from Beaufort has been a consistent critic of these types of government abuses and was one of the authors of the original piece of legislation. He is understandably frustrated and angry over the arrogance of this agency that has flouted the law for more than a decade.
The circumstances at Port Royal are similar to those in Charleston, where the SPA holds title to Union Pier, which is roughly 70 acres of waterfront property. (They obtained this property from Charleston County in the 1950s for $5.) Six years ago the SPA announced plans to construct a cruise ship terminal on one side of Union Pier. Part of that facility would be a nine-acre parking lot for Carnival Cruise Line customers, who would have a short walk from their cars to the cruise ship.
But based on the recent sale of the SPA office building on the southern end of Union pier, this nine-acre parking lot would be worth as much as half a billion dollars. (billion with a “b”) Development of the property with houses, stores, offices and parks would double, triple or quadruple that amount, representing a meteoric increase in the tax base for the city of Charleston. (Up from zero, because the SPA pays no property tax or other fees to the city.)
So, the idea of dedicating 9 acres of some of the most valuable real estate in South Carolina to a surface parking lot owned by a public agency that does not pay property tax is, one might say, the mother of all breaches of fiduciary responsibility. It is up to the citizens of the city and the state to force the SPA’s hand on this issue. Perhaps the SPA’s arrogant violation of law in Port Royal will precipitate a closer review of the agency’s behavior in Charleston as well.
Speaking of citizenship and cruise lines, and of Carnival Cruise Lines in particular, this article from National Public Radio reports that Princess Lines has been charged the largest criminal penalty in history for deliberate, intentional pollution.
This is from the article:
Princess Cruise Lines will pay a $40 million fine for “deliberate pollution of the seas and intentional acts to cover it up,” according to the Department of Justice, which calls it “the largest-ever criminal penalty involving deliberate vessel pollution.”
The California-based cruise operator also agreed to plead guilty to seven felony charges over illegal practices on five ships dating back, in at least one case, to 2005.
The Justice Department said in a statement that Princess illegally dumped contaminated waste and oil from its Caribbean Princess ship for eight years — a practice that was exposed by a whistleblowing engineer in 2013.
Princess Cruise Lines is owned by Carnival Cruise Lines, the company for whom the SPA, deploying resources of the people of South Carolina, would like to build an elegant new terminal, and provide 9 acres of waterfront parking.
In case the example of the SPA does not convince you of the ubiquity of fiduciary abuse by agencies of the state, consider this op-ed from the Post and Courier. The authors run a small nature outfitting business in Horry County. They are concerned about a proposal by the Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority (of Horry County) to build a speculative marine industrial park on a quiet part of the Waccamaw River. It is worth noting that Grand Strand’s partner in this endeavor is none other than South Carolina’s state owned power company, Santee Cooper. As the author’s correctly state:
This is a risky and foolish business decision. Though this project has been in the planning phase for years, GSWSA has not found a single business interested in or committed to locating there. What’s worse is that GSWSA is wagering on this speculative bet over existing, successful businesses in the community, including ours.
But the authors are too generous. Grand Strand Sewer and Water Authority has no business building a marine industrial park, regardless of how good or bad the business decision is. As their name suggests, they are in the water and sewer business. But like Santee Cooper, and like the SPA, mission creep, and empire building, is not a problem, it is way of life.
Now for the inspiring stuff! This editorial from the New York Times reports that cities must, and ARE, leading the way on climate change. This only makes sense. Cities are the component, operational parts of states and nations. They are also the most comprehensible organizing unit (excluding, perhaps, only the neighborhood) for human action. So regardless of who is in power nationally, it always falls to cities to execute the strategies that will determine our collective futures.
Jane Jacobs is, as always, enlightening and inspiring:
“Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else,” the urban visionary Jane Jacobs wrote. “But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”
Finally, finally, Pope Francis. Besides being one of the great leaders of our time, he also has one of the great names of our time. Our wonderful departed friend, scholar, musician and conservationist, Abbot Francis Kline of Mepkin Abbey, also chose St. Francis of Assisi’s name for his monastic appellation. He could have had no more appropriate legacy than that of the new pope.
This article from the Washington Post reports that Pope Francis is calling on world leaders to act quickly on the science of climate change. He recently met at the Vatican with scientists from around the world, including American physicist Stephen Hawking.
So keep the faith, fight crony socialism and have a great week!