Hilton Head council still undecided what to do in Coligny

tbarton@islandpacket.comNovember 21, 2013 

Live updates: Reporter Tom Barton has been attending the workshop and Tweeting about significant developments while the group is in session. His Tweets can be found at the bottom of this story.

Hilton Head Island Town Council has decided to go back to the drawing board -- for the 23rd time in about 15 years -- on plans to redevelop the Coligny area.

While they took no vote Thursday, members agreed during the first day of a three-day workshop in Beaufort the area needs a fresh look.

The consensus came after hours of deliberations about the location of a University of South Carolina Beaufort campus once envisioned for the area and other developments.

Council balked at the idea of a Coligny campus last week.

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

However, nearby residents worry about the increased traffic that would come if students and faculty do.

Council reaffirmed its decision Thursday to walk away from Coligny in favor of moving the campus for the school's hospitality management program to Office Park Road. The school had a satellite campus there before moving in 2004 to its Hilton Head Gateway Campus off U.S. 278 in greater Bluffton.

USCB now prefers a move to Office Park Road, according to a letter from chancellor Jane Upshaw to council.

University staff has determined that location was better because it allows for future expansion as opposed to a more constrained, central location in a revitalized Coligny, Upshaw wrote.

Many of the school's 200 hospitality students have internships at Hilton Head restaurants and hotels. Classes on the island would enhance their educational experience and help the island meet its needs as an evolving tourism destination, Upshaw has said.

The proposed building would also house courses for residents and visitors through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

'WE CAN'T WAVER'

Putting the campus on Office Park Road would rehab what has become a blighted area of largely vacant office buildings in disrepair, town officials said.

"You have a lot of existing blight and I don't see the future of that area as continued office space or retail," Mayor Drew Laughlin said. "The only thing I hear about people wanting to do in that area is a middle-of-the-road hotel. I don't think that's going to do anything for the area."

Councilman George Williams Jr. and town manager Steve Riley, however, warned council to expect a fight from nearby Sea Pines homeowners, who -- like those in South Forest Beach -- will raise similar concerns about traffic congestion, fearing backups at Sea Pines Circle that makewill it difficult to get in and out of the neighborhood.

Riley and resident David Ames, whose office is on Office Park Road, believe those concerns are misguided.

Williams, Laughlin and Riley urged council members to be resolute in their commitment to USCB at that location.

"We can't cave in again," Williams said. "... I'm willing to take the heat. I think it's worthwhile for our community to do this. We cannot waiver. Period."

Councilman Bill Harkins said the town will need to commission a parking and traffic analysis, as well as an economic impact study not done by USCB to help fend off opposition.

With USCB now eliminated from Coligny plans, council members said they want to take another look at possible improvements to the area.

Plans, though, likely will still involve the town using its land to add parking and green space and upgrade nearby streets, including a new road that would provide an outlet to Pope Avenue for North Forest Beach homeowners. The road would run from Lagoon Road behind Heritage Plaza to Waterside Drive.

'HIDEOUSLY EXPENSIVE'

The town faces a December 2014 deadline to agree on how to use about $6 million for Coligny improvements. The town set up a tax-increment finance district to raise the money.

However, Riley 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.

Cost to begin Coligny improvements and the USCB building are still anyone's guess. One estimate from Riley, though, showed a combined $47-million price tag.

One thing is certain, Laughlin said: "It's going to be hideously expensive."

Video: Hilton Head Council opts for fresh look at Coligny, new location for USCB (2:01)

Hilton Head Island town manager Steve Riley discusses Town Council's thoughts for Coligny on Nov. 21, 2013, the first of a three-day planning workshop. Tom Barton


Tweets from the workshop

Reporter Tom Barton's Twitter feed, which Nov. 21-23 will consist mainly of workshop updates:

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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