Is the current real estate boom a bust for local business owners? Through the contacts I am fortunate to have through Lowcountry Local First with the business community I hear numerous stories of absentee landlords who are unresponsive to tenant needs and business owners battling escalating rental rates. With so many developers speculating on property and looking for investors only those tenants that have national recognition and robust financial statements have an opportunity to open up shop.

Charleston has been ranked #1 city in the US, by Conde Nast Traveler for four consecutive years, and Travel & Leisure two consecutive years, creating not only an influx of tourists but also a flood of capital buying up prime real estate in the holy city. Locals who once owned property in our historic and neighboring areas are now willingly selling out to the highest bidder. What happens when the people who live here are not the ones who own property and lease that property to area businesses? Well, we get things like a Walgreens on the most visible corner of the city; we have suffering businesses like the ones at the James Island Shopping Center who are losing business due to the construction of the Harris Teeter; and long standing businesses who can no longer afford the cost of business in the #1 city in the US.

Sure, it’s a free market, it’s what capitalism is all about, but what is the aftermath of all this success? Will we be left with a city where local business owners have no opportunities to take part in our external success? We are building an extraction economy where money is flowing out of Charleston to wealthy individuals and venture capitalists who are investing in a space, not a place and leave in their wake the local businesses that create the charm and provide the hospitality the city is known for.

It’s time for us to get creative in order to make sure that local businesses continue to breathe life into our city. Formula Store Restrictions in Elliotborough or the Upper Peninsula would prevent an influx of chain stores; we could develop a Community Land Trust, much like we do for affordable housing but instead use it for affordable commercial purchasing; in Minneapolis they started an investment co-op that lets communities own and develop their commercial spaces ensuring that local businesses always have a place in their community. Additionally the city could buy property that is then only leased to those who live here.

These efforts are not charitable acts; this is smart economic development. When we consider that these businesses put 3 times as much money back into our community as their national competitors, keep our community unique and serve the needs of it’s residents, it just makes sense. This is the type of innovation that our city needs, so that we don’t become a victim of our own success.

Jamee Haley
Executive Director at Lowcountry Local First