Every year, the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC sponsors a trip to a city that is similar to Colorado Springs to study its economic development, its industries and its tourism. The goal: Learn best practices of successful cities to see if they might work in Colorado Springs.
Audacity and ambition: Two words that Charleston residents and leaders say define the city from its early days. Charleston was founded at one spot on the Ashley River, but colonists soon discovered a better location, so they moved the town — lock, stock and barrel.
“History doesn’t really tell us what happened to the Native Americans who were living in that space,” said Michael Mahler, CEO of the Westedge Project.
That project is just one of several that stand out as the East Coast, Southern city works to grow a workforce, increase jobs and improve the quality of life for residents.
“We know we need to keep equity in mind,” says Bryan Derreberry, CEO of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce. “If wages rise for one group and not across the board, the gap just gets wider — problems develop.”
The developers of the Westedge Project keep that in mind as they revitalize and plan infill development that will border the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
But Mahler said the goal isn’t gentrification.
“We want to incorporate what’s already there,” he said. “We want to include affordable housing, so people who work at the medical center — but aren’t doctors and nurses — can afford to live where they work. It makes sense to us.”
And some of the housing will be pricier, with views of the Ashley River from the topmost floors.
“We can’t really grow out here,” he said. “We have to grow up.”
The Westedge project serves to connect the research efforts of the Medical University of South Carolina, Roper St. Francis Healthcare, the College of Charleston and The Citadel. When it’s finished, it will turn an area filled with gravel parking lots into a mixed-use development that will include housing, retail and office space.
Its first phase is currently under construction and creates parking garages that have mixed use spaces as well. The housing is required to have a mix of affordable homes and more expensive units with views of the Ashley River. A total of 15 percent must meet Housing and Urban Development standards for affordable housing, defined as between 80-120 percent of median incomes.
Publix, a successful supermarket chain in the South, just signed on to open a grocery store on the bottom floor of one of the buildings, and the developers are seeking new business for other retail spaces.
The goal, Mahler said, is to create a walkable district that will eventually include space for biotech startups, technology transfer from the medical school and laboratory space for research and development.
The three buildings and a new road represent about $300 million in investment and about a quarter of the development’s scope, according to reports from the Charleston Post and Courier. In the next 15-25 years, plans call for a dozen new buildings.
And as developers plan a 2017 opening for the first phase, Mahler said don’t be fooled by the pace of progress.
“It took us 15 years to get here,” he said. “But we believe we are creating something that will benefit the entire city. This is my baby, it’s been my life’s goal to make it be successful.”
One aspect of development in Charleston stands out as different from Colorado Springs: the difficulty of building with so much water in the area.
While hacking into Rocky Mountain granite is challenging, builders in Charleston must worry about buildings and roads sinking into the ground. All around town, developers must take into account the high water table and the marshy earth — sometimes sinking poles deep into the earth to hold the foundation, sometimes building up the land with gravel before putting roads in.
One more thing: Westedge will be constructed on a former landfill. Once finished, the ground will be about six feet higher than the original site.
“It’s far more expensive,” Mahler said. “But if you build a road, you don’t want it sinking five feet in the first few years.”
The Westedge effort is one that has an interesting — and audacious — history.
Started as a city effort, the development project was turned over to a nonprofit to raise interest and find tenants for the space.
“It’s not a typical development,” Mahler said. “But we believe it will be a tremendous boon to the city and to the surrounding neighborhoods.”