Forty years is not such a long time in the life of Beaufort, which will celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2011.
But history may well show that the last 40 years have been its most important because it was 40 years ago that far-sighted people saw to it that the heart of town was designated the Beaufort Historic District by the National Register of Historic Places.
As a result, our county seat has an enhanced base for high quality tourism. It has enhanced property values.
But most importantly, it has helped give Beaufort a sense of place. It fosters the appreciation of timeless beauty. It has helped the city maintain a sense of scale and perspective. While other communities drown in a sea of "bigger and better" mediocrity, Beaufort has dared to be different -- and true to itself.
Precious few communities could ever hope to be like Beaufort. But on the other hand, Beaufort could easily have slipped into the morass of sameness that has settled over so many communities during the past 40 years.
All local communities -- including Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, Ridgeland and Hardeeville -- can learn from this success story. As each community looks to its future, they should latch onto the story of Beaufort: Know your core values, know what you have to offer and be true to that. Don't try to be something you're not. Know what is of great value, and protect it no matter the complaints and cost.
Bluffton's old town, too, has earned its place in the National Register of Historic Places. The town has its Historic Preservation Commission and a very active Historical Preservation Society. Their work in old town Bluffton will become increasingly important as new subdivisions continue to grow.
Beaufort's Historic District teaches an important lesson: Success is not easy. It takes great sacrifice. It is hard to maintain old buildings or modernize them and adapt them to new uses, while also being true to historic architectural style, size and materials. In fact, it is a process burdened -- many would say over-burdened -- with regulations and harder-to-define aesthetics, which can seem arcane, unfair and too expensive.
On this front, the citizenry is to be commended.
Writers of "The Beaufort Preservation Manual" in 1979 said:
"Beaufort is a remarkably well-preserved community. There are comparably few intrusions to conflict with the character of the Historic District. As a building collection, Beaufort is a highly significant and unique repository of architectural style and additive detail which reflects the continuing life of the community. The vast majority of Beaufort's residents have contributed greatly to the sympathetic and successful maintenance of the city's character, be it in their houses, the community at large, or indeed, even the lifestyle of a quiet and pastoral town."
Many institutions have worked together to make the Historic District work, with the city government and the private Beaufort Historic Foundation being key players.
Over the past four decades, mistakes have been made. Significant buildings have been lost. But many have been saved, and bad ideas for new construction have been thwarted. And the preservation effort has not stood still, also gaining National Historic Landmark status in 1973.
Looking forward, the challenge is to make sure new generations know why historic preservation has worked and why it is worth the extensive effort that has been poured into it over the past 40 years. They must realize it is a good investment. Today, we can see the positive difference the Historic District designation has made, economically and socially. Future generations must keep the investment alive. It is only beginning to pay dividends.