A Coast Reborn
Without a doubt, the decade of the 1970s brought the seeds of the future success of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. In Charleston, the historic tenure of Mayor Joe Riley began, and in Savannah came the election of a similarly influential and long-serving mayor, John P. Rousakis. The Irish American and the Greek American would break precedents and forge key alliances in both municipalities, reviving not only the local economies but the age-old rivalry between the two cities.
Beginning with downtown’s Charleston Place, Riley embarked on a series of high-profile public works projects to reinvigorate the then-moribund Charleston historic area. King Street would soon follow. In the years 1970–1976, tourism in the Holy City would increase by 60 percent. The resort industry, already established on Hilton Head, would hit Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island, and Isle of Palms with a vengeance.
In Savannah, Rousakis would renovate the then-seedy riverfront district, making it the centerpiece of the city’s burgeoning tourist trade. The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) opened in 1979 and began the process of renovating dozens of the city’s historic buildings, a process that continues today.
The coast’s combination of beautiful scenery and cheap labor proved irresistible to the movie and TV industry, which would begin filming many shows and films in the area in the 1970s and continuing on to this day. Beaufort, South Carolina, in particular, would emerge from its stately slumber as the star of several popular films, such as The Great Santini and The Big Chill.
Charleston received its first major challenge since the Civil War in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo—originally headed directly for Savannah—changed course at the last minute and slammed into the South Carolina coast just above Charleston. The Holy City, including many of its most historic locations, was massively damaged, with hardly a tree left standing.
However, in a testament to the toughness just beneath Charleston’s genteel veneer, the city not only rebounded, but came back stronger. In perhaps typically mercantile fashion, Charlestonians used the devastation of Hugo as a reason to introduce a new round of residential construction to the entire area, particularly the surrounding islands.
The economic boom of the 1990s was particularly good to Charleston and Savannah, whose ports saw a huge dividend from increasing globalization. Also in the 1990s came the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil phenomenon, which would put Savannah—already on the upswing—on the tourist map for good.
Today Savannah’s tourism business is healthier than ever, and Charleston is perennially ranked as one of America’s top cities, both for visitors as well as for residents. Attracted by the coastal region, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs continue to flock, increasing the economic and social diversity of the area and taking it to new heights of livability.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition