Beaufort News

Popular Port Royal councilman Lee leaves legacy of coffee

Former town councilman Joe Lee sits for a portrait on the front porch of his home the morning of Nov. 11, 2015, in Port Royal.
Former town councilman Joe Lee sits for a portrait on the front porch of his home the morning of Nov. 11, 2015, in Port Royal. dearley@islandpacket.com

Port Royal councilman Joe Lee had hoped his public service would help usher in the sale of a certain property and transform the town.

His legacy instead, as his two terms on council come to a close, became coffee.

Lee's weekly "Java with Joe" meetings were well-received by town residents. When Lee was recognized during a council workshop earlier this month, he was presented with a framed photograph of Paris Avenue, where people gathered at various locations over the years for coffee each week.

"You have always listened," town resident Jane Abrams told Lee at the meeting. "...I think everybody here felt they had a voice."

Java with Joe began prior to the 2007 election when Lee told residents he was having coffee at now-closed Olde Town Coffeehaus on Paris Avenue and suggested they join him.

"And that was 370 Wednesdays ago," Lee said. "It's kind of interesting how it engaged people."

The gathering grew and now maintains an email list.

Many of the same faces appear each week to talk about a variety of topics that aren't political, Lee said. For example, residents used one session to vent about cellphone carriers.

The meetings have also spurred community involvement. The group worked to help residents in need and fought to keep historic Port Royal Elementary School open in the face of budget cuts.

When the original coffee shop closed, the event moved around to its current location in the downstairs space used by St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Paris Avenue. A once-a-mointh meeting at night was added for those who can't make the morning meetings.

Those monthly meetings include wine.

"It's more lively than coffee," Lee said. "I can't imagine why."

Lee's final term expires in December. His belief in term limits brought his council career to an end.

He was first elected in 2006 after the death of councilwoman Yvonne Butler.

The West Virginia native, who moved to Port Royal from Kentucky in 2001, wanted to finish the work he started on the Port of Port Royal as a member of the town's Redevelopment Commission.

Almost 10 years later, on the porch of his home a stone's throw from the port property, Lee waved a figurative white flag on the real estate headache. He is resigned to the fact that there's no apparent end in sight, though a new group of developers is approaching a closing date of Dec. 31.

But Lee can point to other milestones during his tenure which he attributes to the leadership of town manager Van Willis and longtime Mayor Sam Murray in stretching a small budget.

The town invested in new drainage systems, an amphitheater and boardwalk for the Cypress Wetlands, a sanctuary for a variety of birds and other wildlife.

It also bought and improved The Shed, an entertainment space on Paris Avenue, and improved the Sands Beach and boardwalk.

Lee played a key role in town festivals and in developing the town's Old Village Association, Port Royal resident and regular coffee-goer Bob Bender said.

"What set Joe apart from the beginning was his community involvement beyond the twice-monthly council meetings," Bender said.

Lee also talked about what's next for him and Port Royal:

On plans to volunteer as an advocate for the Port Royal Sound:

"I envision going into schools and talking to children about the sound and how they at their house can affect the sound ... . I keep telling people we don't want this to be another Chesapeake Bay, which just died."

On town revenue:

"Nobody talked about the revenue stream during the election, everybody wants to talk about the spending side -- 'We're going to do this; we're going to do that -- but nobody talked about 'Where's the money coming from?' Because the state is taking money from us every time they turn around."

On the port:

"I wouldn't count at all on the port sale (as a source of future revenue). I think that's so convoluted right now, although it looks on paper like it's going to close in December. I hope it does, but I think it's fraught with a lot of problems."

Follow reporter Stephen Fastenau at twitter.com/IPBG_Stephen.

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