New mayor, council face Beaufort’s unfinished business

in Bill Rauch/Contributors by

By BILL RAUCH

Welcome Mayor Stephen Murray and the new Beaufort City Council.

There are great challenges before you. But looking across your ranks, I believe you are up to the job, that you will multitask as necessary, and that you will be a council that is remembered fondly for many years to come.

You take office at a terrible time. The worst of the pandemic may still be to come; unemployment is high and may get worse before it gets better; the economy continues to teeter while Washington fiddles; and while it appears property tax revenues may hold up, the bed tax, the meal tax and other essential city revenues are way off.

Be not afraid. In adversity, there is always opportunity.

With that can-do spirit in mind let’s have a look at some of the city’s unfinished business that has been ignored for the past decade.

Mayor Murray, I was heartened to see, ran with the iconic Woods Bridge as his logo and running mate. Yes, the bridge should be placed on the National Register. While not necessarily easy, that’s the easy part.

Traffic on the bridge must be relieved too. And that means returning the city’s focus to building the third crossing. This common-sense solution was first proposed in the S.C. Highway Department’s 1973 BEAUTS Study, and it has been revisited from time to time over the ensuing half century. Again and again, the third crossing at Brickyard has been shown to be the only practical alternative.

But with not a penny in the till, where will the vast amounts of needed money come from?

Keep an eye out for new infrastructure money out of Washington; stick tight with Senators Graham and Scott and with Rep. Mace; stick tight with Shannon Erickson and Tom Davis; and watch for Bluffton and Hilton Head needing improved roads and bridges, the money for which can come only from a new penny sales tax. Drive a single-minded bargain there, and then match those dollars from pots of transportation and infrastructure money maintained by the state and federal governments.

The Air Station has an interest here too. They are potentially a powerful ally.

Remind those who say it can’t be done that one county councilman, Mark Generales, using the strategy I just described, single-handedly, over the city’s objections, put together the money to build the new two lanes of the “New” (McTeer) Bridge.

Imagine what can be done if the Air Station, Beaufort County and the City of Beaufort lock arms on this. While you are imagining, think about the snarled traffic on the McTeer Bridge when the Woods Bridge goes down, and then think of the Army Corps of Engineers’ 1991 Woods Bridge replacement alternative that called for a fixed span bridge similar to the McTeer Bridge that towers above and casts a shadow over the Waterfront Park and Bay Street. The stakes here are high indeed.

Another high stakes ball to keep in the air is the city’s defense of its position as Beaufort County’s civic center. The County is demonstrably keeping its headquarters here, and City Hall is now right across the street. But the School District has one troublesome foot already out of Beaufort’s door and aimed at Bluffton. Their headquarters offices (that are currently in a drafty old school building replete with many empty classrooms) should be where the closed Piggly Wiggly stands on the third corner of Boundary Street and Ribaut Road.

What if you supported the county’s effort to pass the impact fee for schools, and encouraged the District to use some of that money to move their headquarters to better quarters back downtown where it belongs?

By the way, you say you want housing. Why not there in Mink Point after the School District comes home to downtown Beaufort?

If you need them, here are the civic center arguments. Governments benefit the citizens they serve in many ways by having their offices in close proximity. Besides the obvious convenience for anyone wanting to find and visit their government, collegiality is more likely to overtake rivalry when staffers and elected officials see one another at lunch, or in the parking lot, or at the dry cleaner, or on the street-corner.

When governments cooperate, the taxpayers win. Beaufort County and the School District especially can use a refresher here. If they were neighbors, they’d be more likely to work out their differences.

And from a purely parochial viewpoint keeping the School District’s headquarters in Beaufort means, over time, thousands of good jobs for Beaufort’s residents. Kudos to those — like Stephen Murray — who are seeking to bring in new jobs. But just as important is keeping — and growing — the ones we have.

In your capacity as Redevelopment Commissioners, you are unquestionably up to this challenge. Just remember that in local government you get a lot more with honey than you do with vinegar. This will take some honey.

The time is long past also to begin to seriously implement the Southside Park master plan. Southside is Mossy Oaks’ park, and Mossy Oaks put you where you are today.

Be patient. Opportunities to find that money will come too. But you must be ready when they do, and judging from some of what was said in the campaign I know you will be.

Finally, you have been given a great gift by not having to run in primaries. At all costs remain non-partisan. With a Democratic administration in the White House and Rep. James Clyburn the House Majority Whip, times will certainly come when you will want to be able to reach out to them. Yet your Federal and State legislative delegations are almost universally Republican. You will of course need them too. There’s only one solution. When you are asked if you are a Republican or a Democrat say, “I’m both. Whoever’s helping Beaufort, I’m for them!”

It’s time for Beaufort to catch up.

There’s more, but let’s start there. You can do it. I’m pulling for you, and way more importantly, so too are the 14,000 residents of Beaufort, and the 25,000 more residents of Beaufort’s adjacent areas who rightly and proudly call this special place their home town.

Bill Rauch was the Mayor of Beaufort from 1999 to 2008. He has twice won awards from the S.C. Press Association for his Island News columns.