Council balks at proposed USCB campus in Coligny

tbarton@islandpacket.comNovember 12, 2013 

Hilton Head Island Town Council members say they want a University of South Carolina Beaufort campus on the island -- just not at Coligny.

A standing-room only crowd gathered at Town Hall Tuesday to hear council's opinions on three proposals for redeveloping the Coligny area, and voice their own.

Two of the proposals include a site for a USCB hospitality management program.

"We started a conversation about what do for the Coligny area and it's turned into a fight over USCB," town manager Steve Riley said during the meeting. "I believe that bringing the university to this island will be far more transformational for the community as a whole than anything we ever do... . But, if we're going to bring USCB to this island in an reasonable time frame," it cannot be to Coligny.

Instead, Riley and Mayor Drew Laughlin said the town should move ahead with scaled-back plans focused on creating additional beach parking and making the area more walkable.

Thought it did not vote, most council members seemed to agree the town should move forward with plans without a USCB presence at Coligny and find an alternate location for the campus.

"For 15 years we have been asking if we can do something more transformational with our land than just a park and a parking lot," Riley said. "Apparently, for most of the people here, that answer is, 'No.'

"Nineteen previous plans have been shouted down. Why would I think these three would be any different? Let's get on with our partnership with USCB in another location while making some modest improvements at Coligny. It may not be a grand slam, but a home run is far better than striking out."

That did not sit well with councilman Lee Edwards, who said the town in facts needs a grand slam.

"We have a phenomenal opportunity here in a prime area," he said. "We could do something really special -- we could do something remarkable -- but a vocal minority has bombarded (council) with calls and emails. It's really discouraging to me (that) people are willing to fold up and say, 'Let's not do something bold.'"

Edwards also argued the town would get similar pushback no matter where it chose to place a USCB campus.

MAGNIFIED CONCERNS?

Town officials have said the campus could bring life and vibrancy to the area year-round.

However, many residents have voiced concerns about the increased traffic they expect would come if students do.

A campus would bring the junior and senior years of the school's Hospitality Management program back to Hilton Head, USCB chancellor Jane Upshaw said after the meeting. It would provide students the chance to work in the field in which they are studying and help the island meet its needs as an evolving tourism destination, she said.

The campus would accommodate about 200 students, she said.

Laughlin said he understands the concerns of residents about increased traffic, but thinks those issues have been magnified and will not be as bad as suggested.

He said he still believes Coligny is the best location for a USCB campus, but said it would also be successful elsewhere on the island.

"I'm 100 percent committed to USCB ... but I don't want to load (a redevelopment) plan down so it carries so much weight, opposition and cost that it won't float," Laughlin said.

UNANSWERED QUESTION

Redeveloping the Coligny area has been long been a priority for the town.

It faces a December 2014 deadline to agree on how to use $6.4 million for improvements there. The town set up a tax-increment finance district to raise the money.

However, Laughlin said the town has started discussions about extending the tax district for several years if an agreement can be reached among the participants -- which include Beaufort County, the Beaufort County School District and the Hilton Head Public Service District.

That money would likely be used to partly pay for a USCB location elsewhere on the island, Laughlin said.

Asked by a resident when council will finally vote on what to do in Coligny, Laughlin replied: "I wish I knew the answer to that."


The Coligny redevelopment proposals

All three include a park with a children's museum, a playground and at least 1.5 acres of green space. The differences among the plans:
  • The first includes a University of South Carolina Beaufort campus with a two-story building with classrooms and teaching labs, a three-story parking garage with more than 600 spaces and nearly 12,000 square feet of retail space in front of the garage off Pope Avenue.
  • The second includes the campus but without the retail space.
  • The third does not include the campus but has a parking lot with more than 400 spaces.


Video: Residents comment on development plans for Coligny (4:32)

Highlights from the public comments during a meeting at Hilton Head Island Town Hall to discuss three plans for redeveloping the Coligny District. Sarah Welliver

Video: USCB Chancellor reacts to concerns of proposed Hilton Head campus (1:18)

University of South Carolina Beaufort Chancellor Jane Upshaw reacts to resident opposition to a proposed USCB campus at Colingy on Hilton Head Island. Tom Barton

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