Summey is a realist. He’s a burly man filled with bravado. He knows from whence he came and how the City of North Charleston, the third largest city in South Carolina, has emerged as the center to something even more magnificent than he ever considered growing up. He commanded that transformation.
“I consider myself a pleaser. I try to work with everybody to get a positive solution that is better than the status quo.” Summey noted. “I like to build a consensus with others that can also benefit, whether it’s the town of Ravenel, Summerville, or the City of Charleston.”
North Charleston, once the far end of a shortsighted joke, has recently arrived. It is the pulse and heartbeat of a metropolitan area designated on a world map as ‘Charleston’ proper. That’s a nearly unfair assessment. The City of North Charleston has 100,000 citizens; the lion’s share of the tri-county industry, and it commands the geographic center of the area’s traffic patterns. It is the railroad center, the location of the Charleston International Airport and the beneficiary designee of the old Charleston Naval Shipyard. It is the nexus of the three counties that merge within the map lettering also named ‘Charleston.’ That place is actually North Charleston. It is the new home of Boeing and the long-term home of MeadWestvaco. It has a United States Air Base and borders to a United States Naval Weapons Station, now a joint command. A large part of the new retail fire that rages in North Charleston is simply called Center Pointe. How appropriate! There, at that centering site appear major retailers buoyed by a wonderland of major ‘retail wholesalers’ – the new and fresh Tanger Outlet Mall. North Charleston has been the major retail center in all of South Carolina for the last 19 consecutive years.
It wasn’t always that way. Originally the area encompassed the outlying plantations of Charleston proper. There were the Elms, Archdale and Oak Grove plantations. It was the most prominent ‘north’ known in Charleston’s old south. The four years of the Civil War changed that economy, but not the usage. The plantations divided like amoebas. They became tenant agricultural divisions. Families farmed them for primary sustenance and what the market would bear beyond.
Through the insistence of former Governor Ben “Pitch Fork’ Tillman in 1890, the United States Navy designated land six miles up the Cooper River to become a navy ship repair facility. They began construction in 1901. Repairs were made during and after World War I, there being no new ships constructed. In 1933, North Charleston and the surrounding area got a boost when new shipbuilding was authorized. The Navy Yard and Navy Base grew, as did North Charleston. By the time of the navy complex’s closing ninety-five years later, the Charleston Naval Base and Charleston Naval Shipyard had grown to 70,000 direct and indirect jobs for the Charleston area. Both were located inward from McMillan Avenue in North Charleston. Now, that property allows ample room for growth and an inordinate conglomeration of viable, but vacant, waterfront.
There was other industry that made North Charleston arise, to be sure. A lumberyard venture a hundred years ago attracted a handful of investors with an eye to the burgeoning ship repair industry. Park Circle, a large residential gamble, was developed on an English countryside plan. The names Buist, Durant, Hyde, Mixon, and O’Hear grace the street signs of that area today. Like the spokes of a wheel, Park Circle reaches out to the North Charleston beyond.
By the war years of 1941 to 1945, the Shipyard was bustling. In the 1950’s and beyond, with the advent of nuclear powered submarines, Charleston became the home to the premier U.S. fleet ballistic missile submarine base. By the mid 1980’s there were nearly 40,000 daily workers at the shipyard and Navy Base complex. It is also the recovery and archeological restoration home of the H. L. Hunley, the first submarine in history to sink an opposing ship in wartime.
There were other nuances to North Charleston’s past.
“When Pinehaven Shopping Center was built in 1959, it was the largest shopping center in the southeast.” Summey reflected. “It had the benefit of the Naval Hospital, the Navy Yard workers by the thousands and, of course, the Navy itself. It was the ‘happening place’ of the 1960’s.”
“Since then, we have opened fabulous venues for shopping – Northwood’s Mall, Festival Center, Center Pointe and a half dozen more upscale places that attract people from the entire Lowcountry. There are pods for shopping spread throughout North Charleston.”
North Charleston has taken on the character of islands in a lake. There are important destinations across the area, but no real city center. Summey would eventually like to change that. “I’d really like to create a corridor for a downtown that runs next to the Old Village (East Montague) to Virginia Avenue and to Center Point. It would give more character to the city and build a center for our commerce.”
Summey has always been up to the task. He had ideas and martialed a vision. He had to change old perceptions. He had to walk a few older council members into the dream and excite other younger people to get involved. As only the third mayor of the city, there was little history – and most of it needed to be forgotten. North Charleston had the reputation of being Charleston’s attic. There were things there you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Much of what the government took away had a silver lining and Summey was certain of its promise. With the largest economic engine – the navy complex – on the way out, someone needed to come in and make sense of it all. Summey wanted the job.
Summey was a part of every innovation, every upgrade and every nuance. He took the red clay and molded it into the new City of North Charleston – where all things were possible. He built coalitions with other governments. He attracted industry. He delineated commercial and industrial corridors. He planned the future of transportation patterns. He stepped up services. He advertised and marketed. He upgraded his police department to fit the challenges. He worked tirelessly to meet the daily tests he would encounter.
Summey reached into government and found solutions. He reached into industry and found partners. He reached even further – to the people he had known for a lifetime to get on board with his vision. Reaching out is what he does best.
“There exists here a better quality of life, a better reputation and a better and more diversified quality of jobs.” Summey said with a smile. “We are better in every way that I can count because we all worked to improve.”
In even the most difficult times of the recent economic downturn, Summey worked with his council, industry, real estate concerns and businesses to “keep one business, especially, out of North Charleston – the vacant building business.”
“A vacant building is the sign of a failure. It is what I do not wish to see in the city. So we cut through bureaucratic red tape to attract the best of the best and give them every consideration to compete and grow in our area. We want them here and they know that.”
“I’m basically a salesperson. We can more effectively incentivize new business and innovation by being proactive in the attraction of the right businesses.” Summey explained. “I care about these people and this community. I was never concerned about what others thought about North Charleston as much as I was concerned about our own self-esteem.”
Summey and his wife, Deborah, have two children, Elliott and Annie.They have three grandchildren. Son Elliott Summey has been a member of Charleston County Council since 2008.
Summey’s availability as a mayor makes him more than unique. He is gregarious, energized and industrious in the ways of building coalitions. He puts people together. Those coalitions have become a part of the resurgent story of North Charleston. Ostensibly, it is the story of Mayor Keith Summey.
Thomas (Tommy) McQueeney is a born and bred Charlestonian who graduated from The Citadel with a BA in English, and is a 30 year agent with State Farm Insurance in Mt. Pleasant.