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Charleston tourism boosts city’s relocation potential

By Wayne Caparas

In the 1970s Charleston wasn’t even printed on many globes.  But two decades later, Conde Nast magazine rates Charleston as America’s 4th best destination behind San Francisco, Santa Fe and New Orleans.  Conde Nast also rates Charleston as the 15th best destination in the entire world. Small wonder that many of the tourists of yesterday are becoming Charleston’s business owners and cultural leaders of today.

Today’s top executives and entrepreneurs are waking to the revelation that they can pretty much live anywhere in the world and still conduct day to day business.  No longer is location of corporate headquarters or personal residence contingent on driving distance to financial or industrial hub cities.  Technology changes everything.

Nowadays people who can live anywhere are choosing to live here.  But why? Perhaps the answer lies in Charleston’s lure as a tourist destination. A large number of people who first visit the city as tourists fall in love with the region and decide to move their families and businesses here.  “Deep down inside, when [newcomers] see and experience Charleston, they realize this is how they’d really rather live,” says Duane Parrish, deputy director of the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Visitors who become residents realize that Charleston has no rival where the combined economic implications of geography, culture, and history are concerned, according to Jim Bradley, chief executive officer of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. Bradley points out that many of today’s most active leaders in preservation and community service moved to Charleston over the past twenty years. 

The long road to prosperity

 “From 1864 until about 1964, there was out-migration (in the Lowcountry),” notes Patrick Mason, co-founder of the Center for Carolina Living in Columbia. “People left to find their dreams, and that occurrence cut across racial lines.”  Although it was the sole major Confederate city to escape destruction during the Civil War, Charleston was broken by a barrage of major disasters soon after the war’s end.  Hurricanes and earthquakes of high magnitude and great fires all rocked the city before the turn of the century.  Charleston’s old buildings crumbled, but with no money to clear ground and rebuild, many fled.  For decades the former capital of southern culture lay motionless under the ash of governmental neglect and geographic isolation.

According to Mason, Charleston’s fortunes began to shift upward about thirty years ago with the emergence of two regional phenomena: the internationally-known Research Triangle in North Carolina; and world-wide television coverage of Hilton Head playing host to a number of golf tournaments. All of a sudden, the Carolinas were on the map, not just literally but in the minds of well-heeled vacationers eager for new sights. And when Joseph P. Riley, Jr. won the mayor’s seat in 1975, Charleston began a rapid  climb out of its century-long hibernation.

“Mayor Riley is the number one reason for the region’s dramatic turnaround,” says Bradley.  Riley re-awakened Charleston’s economic vitality without threatening its pristine landscapes, historic gardens, natural waterways or Holy City identity.  Most importantly, Riley realized the extraordinary economic and cultural opportunities that would result from his balanced plan: revitalizing and restoring the dilapidated colonial city while infusing new construction to complement its historic architecture.

Mason concurs. Under Riley’s near quarter-century of leadership, “Charleston has come around second base and is heading for home,” economically speaking. “Mayor Riley set up the infrastructure and changed Charleston’s business mindset,” opening the doors to outside investors, businesses and real estate owners.

Vacationer, renter, real estate owner

Following these seminal events, curious vacationers from all over the world, but particularly from the “frost belt” of the Northeast and Midwestern United States, discovered the unique history and ambiance of Charleston and other Lowcountry hamlets, notes Mason.

“They start with renting. Then they buy a lot or a condo, and eventually they move here,” says Mason, noting that the process from traveler to real estate owner often occurs slowly over ten years or more. Initially “Wild Dunes, Kiawah and Seabrook were rentable places appealing to vacationers and others needing convention and meeting space. Then people started thinking, ‘Why don’t we move here?’” he adds.

Leaders worried about the dominance of tourism in Charleston should not forget that the area’s historical, architectural and environmental riches have driven a thriving real estate market and brought the region increased economic power, enthusiastic residents, and “new blood” for civic leadership.