Pensacola, Florida
Thursday October 17th 2019


Beating Rats in the Rain

By Rick Outzen

Joe Riley has been an inspiration to Pensacola for over 15 years, ever since he spoke to community leaders at a speaker series hosted by Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. At the time, he had been elected to his seventh term as mayor of Charleston, S.C., and was the model for how a strong, innovative politician could turn around a historic Southern city.

In the years following his talk, Riley was quoted by community leaders like Quint Studer, John Peacock, Buzz Ritchie and Earle Bowden in viewpoints concerning the Community Maritime Park, consolidation and the strong-mayor form of government.

Riley would go on to serve 10 terms, the longest tenure of any mayor in Charleston’s history. Last week, he returned to Pensacola to speak to a packed house at CivicCon. He used his experiences in Charleston to illustrate “how we, together, create wonderful communities.”

“Charleston is an old American city, built before the automobile and the elevator—a city of remarkable human scale,” Riley opened his talk. “In building and rebuilding the city, the goal should always be to make your city a place where every citizen’s heart can sing.”

According to Riley, Charleston was laid out in the late 1600s as a model city. It wasn’t disturbed by the Industrial Revolution or the Civil War. Most of its buildings remained relatively intact. He said, “It’s a real live American city filled with all the opportunities for achievement, great success and failure.”

One failure was the demolition of the historic Charleston Hotel, where the Democratic Convention met in 1860. Why? In the 1950s, city leaders were convinced that a great city needed to have a drive-in motel. There wasn’t a great city without a drive-in motel.

“In this business we’re all in, goal number one is to try to keep from making mistakes,” said Riley. “And that was a huge mistake.”

Affordable Housing
An issue for the city of Pensacola is developing affordable housing. Riley talked about how he was determined to build affordable housing on the vacant lots in his city.
“We started work in the poor sections of our city because the city must be a place for everyone,” he said. “I told them that we weren’t going to build any more housing projects, and we would scatter public housing on vacant lots in the city.”

The housing authority wasn’t happy and hired an architect to design more housing projects. Riley said, “We saw what the architect had in mind. We told them to fire those architects and get some other architects.”

The final product was affordable housing for very poor people, heavily subsidized, owned by the housing authority, built on vacant lots and integrated and nestled into the neighborhood.

He also tackled homelessness. “We had a wonderful shelter for the homeless,” said Riley.  We wanted to build transitional housing. Just a little better housing for someone who’d been in the shelter a long time and just starting to mainstream a little bit. So picked a young architect. He won an award, a national award from the American Institute of Architecture, for transitional housing.”

The scattered-site public housing and housing for people moving out of the shelter were recognized around the country and honored by President Ronald Reagan, according to Riley. He urged the crowd to never accept mediocrity. He said, “There are things so often that you have to build and be told, ‘Well, it’s just.’ Let me tell you something, in a city, you can never say it’s just.”

“I was at a cocktail party, the president of one of our college’s homes, one night, and a server came through with a tray of food and she offered me something,” shared Riley. “She leaned over to me and said, ‘Mayor Reilly, I want to thank you.’ And I said, ‘What’s that for ma’am?’ And she said to me, ‘Because Monday, I’m moving into Seven Marion Street, and it’s so beautiful.’ And I thought of that moment, you know, secure public housing beats rats in the rains.”

He reinforced his point, “The fact of the matter is this—in city building, there’s never any excuse, under any circumstances, to build or allow anything that doesn’t add to the beauty of a community.”

A Forever Opportunity
On Wednesday morning, Riley spoke to a smaller gathering at the SCI Building. He talked about the creation of Spoleto Festival USA, a 17-day celebration of art, music, dance and theater that celebrated its 43rd season last May.

When he was first elected in December 1975, Riley and community leaders want to create an American version of the internationally-famous arts festival in Spoleto, Italy, with the help of the famous opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti.
“Menotti wanted to have a sister festival in the U.S. to connect the countries, and he wanted a smaller city so that the festival wouldn’t be overwhelmed,” said Riley. “The festival was to start in ’77, and then the summer of ’76, they went to see a tiny festival and they were undone. First of all, the Italian festival’s finances were terrible, and that scared the hell out of them. They were also undone with homosexuality among the artists.”

The organizers said that the Spoleto festival was too much a gamble and would rather do a simpler Charleston festival. “And, at first, it kind of felt comfortable, like you’re putting on a pair of shoes that you know fits good, an old jacket or something,” said Riley. “But I knew, and I had colleagues that agreed, that the Spoleto Festival was a once in a forever opportunity to put on something that was world-class, out of our orbit of comfortableness. I told the civic leaders, I thought we need to go forward with the Spoleto Festival.”

A board meeting was held and chairman of the board, who was a prominent civic leader and businessman, made a motion to disband the Spoleto Festival USA. Riley said, “And I nervously raised my hand and said, ‘I moved to table the motion,’ and my motion passed by one vote.”

He continued, “That changed Charleston, and the reason was this—it forced us to accept the responsibility of being a world-class city. When we opened festival years later, that once exposed to excellence of that degree, it’s really hard to accept mediocrity.”

Riley said a city’s greatness has little to do with its population size. In 1980, Charleston’s population was 69,779. It’s nearly doubled since Riley was first elected mayor.

“Pensacola is on the cusp of being a great city, and the greatness has nothing to do with size,” said Riley. “Greatness is about a city working to achieve excellence in everything it did, whether it’s in the best police department, the cleanest streets or everything in between.”

He added, “And maybe most especially it is in the urban design and development area, because what you do or don’t do will be there for a long, long time.”