Dr. Elise Fox, a Democratic S.C. House District 81 candidate, hosted another "Coffee with the Candidate" forum Jan. 17, attracting a handful of area residents who extracted hyper-local answers from her.
Fielding questions from the eight or so people in attendance, Fox zeroed in on Aiken and its current events.
In the downtown area, Fox said the "Renaissance" – rebranded as the "Downtown Development Project" – is something worth paying attention to.
The City announced, on Dec. 29, 2017, that downtown redevelopment would not include a parking garage on the corner of Richland Avenue and Newberry Street, as had been discussed. City Manager John Klimm has said numerous other areas are now being considered.
Other details of the downtown redevelopment include consolidating City services into one building, increasing housing in the downtown area and increasing overall retail options – but nothing chain-like, according to City spokesman Tim O'Briant.
Fox, who grew up in Aiken, said she remembers when "downtown … was almost failing."
"They put a lot of effort into revitalizing downtown, and they've done an amazing job," she said. "I think they've done a really good job."
Fox is of the opinion – like many others, including Klimm and Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon – that the downtown deserves to keep its "charm," but also grow.
"We also need to be open to some of the new developments the City is talking about that they want to do," Fox said. "You know, keep that character, it's a beautiful downtown area to highlight, but there are things we can pull in."
A bridge exists in Hotel Aiken, Fox said. The downtown landmark will eventually come under the Courtyard by Marriott wing. Extensive renovations and rebranding come with that, something hotel owner Neel Shah has said will modernize the hotel while maintaining its boutique, and uniquely Aiken, characteristics.
"The Marriott that they are going to build downtown will be a big asset to us," Fox said. "The one thing Aiken kind of lacks is more conferencing-type facilities where you can rent a meeting room and go somewhere."
Shah's hotel reconstruction includes conference and meeting space.
When asked what "character" or charm means to her, Fox said it's a "feeling invoked by the City" with nostalgia partially to blame.
"It's kind of a feeling … not it's all concrete slab buildings that are ugly and boring," she said. "There's some really nice architecture, some beautiful old homes and gardens."
She said coherent styles and period-relevant designs make for a unified, central area. She credited – at least partially – the Design Review Board, a group tasked with historic preservation in certain Aiken areas.
"They do a very good job of trying to make things cohesive," Fox said. "It looks planned. One thing large cities struggle with is sprawl."
Fox, who has repeatedly said education is her campaign's cornerstone, said the one thing she's heard most about is exactly that: education.
Fox said people have come to her with their Aiken County Public School District rezoning grievances.
"It's primarily a School Board issue," Fox said, "but, I will say, the state has a part in it."
The school district has said the rezoning, which will, in some areas, bump children out of their neighborhood schools and into farther buildings, is an effort to balance demographics and efficiently utilize available space. The rezoning plans were met with heavy criticism: Some parents said the reorganization is burdensome and costly – both financially and quality time-wise.
Fox said the Aiken School Board has not conducted a comprehensive study in 30 years, leaving the district exposed.
"If you don't rezone for 30 years, people are going to be, they're going to be angry," she said. "They're not going to like some of the decisions that have to be made."
Increasing education funding, Fox said, would stop school boards from being "backed into a corner" and enable the boards to "do what they have to do more often."
"Do an assessment every 10 years," Fox said. "Things are changing so fast."