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The Holley proposal is a bit odd

IN prospering cities today, young professionals are opting for a downtown lifestyle.

Disdaining the suburbs of their parents' generation, they want nice apartments within walking distance of good restaurants, friendly bars and trendy shops.

And Charleston wants them.

Mayor Danny Jones believes young earners are the key to the city's future, and his administration has worked hard to create a climate that will attract them.

He has courageously jettisoned tired events like the Sternwheel Regatta and fostered the development of new ones, like the summer Live on the Levee concerts, June's FestivAll and October's Rod Run and Doo Wop car show.

He talked up an overhaul of Kanawha Boulevard that would have slowed traffic but drawn more walkers, runners and bikers to the city's attractive riverfront. Lacking the means to execute the costly plan, the mayor has pushed ahead with parts of it, like the re-do of Haddad Riverfront Park.

He works closely with the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau to draw conferences to town. Just this week he was in California pitching the city's assets to a large military group.

He has another plan, ambitious but necessary, to renovate and expand the Charleston Civic Center, a focal point for convention planners.

Meanwhile, the city's population, which has dropped in tandem with the state's for decades, has stabilized. It is hovering at just over 50,000 residents.

The mayor cares deeply about the city. I know from talking with him that he reads widely and picks the brains of other mayors as he strives for workable ideas.  

This has to be frustrating because vision invariably involves expense, and the city is hardly flush with cash. To the contrary, it is saddled with pension liabilities that take bigger bites of its budget each year.

So the city's latest idea for luring young professionals — by  building them nice but subsidized apartments on the old Holley Hotel site on Quarrier Street — strikes me as quite a reach.     

The unusual proposal has become tied to the city's effort to snag a grant from the private Bloomberg Foundation. Hundreds of other cities are applying as well. Four winning cities will receive $1 million each, and one will get $5 million.

Neither amount would be enough to build what city leaders seem to want — a complex with street-level shops and several floors of upscale apartments.

So one idea for covering costs is to get businesses to put up rent subsidies of $10,000 per year for each employee who agrees to live in one of the apartments.

Another aspect to the proposal would have apartment dwellers engaging in a three-year leadership program during their off hours. The idea is to cultivate new community leaders who dwell within city limits.

It sounds like an honors dorm for post-graduates.

What the heck. It works on campus.   

The Daily Mail this week reported that a few employers, including one of the downtown law firms and a local architect, are enthusiastic.

I was surprised to hear of employers willing to add to their payroll costs.

However, I will try to keep my mind pried open, hoping that the first shovelful of dirt does not fly until these businesses have signed on the dotted line.

Of greater concern is who actually would build this complex, and who would finance it.

If the answer is government, the mind snaps shut.

Government money already is used to build roads, bridges, civic centers, farmers markets, housing for the poor, schools, playgrounds — the list goes on. The tax revenue needed to support all this is in short supply on all levels of government.  

Ironically, government has spent money hand over fist in recent decades to make it easier for people to move out of cities. Great wads of tax dollars have been used to improve roads and extend city water and sewer services up hill and dale.

Now we want folks back downtown.

I've been a city dweller all my life. I grew up on the West Side but now live in South Hills. I appreciate the short commute to work and downtown amenities.   

A nice Quarrier Street housing complex would shore up those amenities.

But it should be built by a business with private financing that would realistically evaluate demand for upscale apartments at that location.

The Holley site has been available for purchase for 20 years.

If no such entity is interested in taking on such a project, there's probably a reason.

Friend is editor and publisher of the Daily Mail. She may be reached at 348-5124 or nanyaf@dailymail.com.


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