Hilton Head plans to celebrate 30-year and 350-year anniversaries

tbarton@islandpacket.comOctober 22, 2012 

Nearly 30 years ago, Hilton Head Island was a small, budding community unable to control its growth.

Today, the island is a mature town with many areas showing their age and a weakened economy.

A committee will meet at 9 a.m. today at Town Hall to discuss plans to celebrate the town's evolution since being incorporated in 1983 and sighted by Capt. William Hilton in 1663.

Event organizers have pulled together the two historic dates and will unveil plans for a week of events from Sept. 30 to Oct. 5, 2013.

All community organizations are invited. The week will culminate in a "350/30" birthday celebration Oct. 5 at Coligny Beach, organizer Leslie Richardson said.

The town was incorporated in 1983 as a "limited-service" government, with the intent to slow and control rapid growth. Today, some see a town government moving more toward a full-service municipality, with a $70 million budget and more than 150 employees -- a majority of whom are with the town's Fire & Rescue Division.

Others argue it's more of a hybrid, providing traditional government services yet delivering them through other private and nonprofit agencies.

The town still contracts with the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office for police service. It also lacks a traditional public works department for road repair and maintenance.

But it has assumed garbage collection services, provided by a single private hauler, and manages stormwater from gated communities. The town has also provided recreation and leisure services through the Island Recreation Association.

"The breadth of the town's involvement in the everyday life of citizens has increased dramatically over the years," said Chet Williams, an attorney on Hilton Head and frequent observer at government meetings. "Like any bureaucracy, the longer it's around, the larger it gets. But it certainly serves a lot of good purposes right now."

Joan Kinne-Shulman, former president of the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area, says the town had to take on more services to meet the needs of growing residential and tourist populations.

Hilton Head's first mayor, Ben Racusin, 97, argues the town was never incorporated to offer only limited services, but to keep "over-development" at bay.

"The whole idea of a limited-service government was a figment of someone's imagination at the time -- probably mine," Racusin said. "As the town grew, more and more services were demanded, not necessarily asked for, but demanded."

Town manager Steve Riley believes the town has and will remain true to that limited-service principle and to what makes Hilton Head unique.

"The overriding concern for the town when it formed was not to become any place or every place, (but to) have maintained a unique identity," Riley said. "Hilton Head is still a special place. That's what you celebrate."

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