USCB plan for island location gains momentum

tbarton@islandpacket.comDecember 21, 2013 

A proposal to move the University of South Carolina Beaufort's hospitality management program to Office Park Road on Hilton Head Island appears to be gaining momentum, despite concerns raised by some residents.

Some Sea Pines homeowners are concerned a satellite campus will bring traffic congestion to Sea Pines Circle, making it difficult to get in and out of the gated community.

Joe Kernan, a board member of Sea Pines' Community Services Associates and property owners association, says the circle is already overloaded with traffic. The retired engineer says adding yet more from college classrooms would make driving unsafe and also keep residents trapped inside the community during peak morning hours, 8 to 10 a.m.

Traffic attempting to enter Sea Pines from 3 to 6 p.m. on weekdays would slow to a crawl, he says, based on the town's last count of traffic at the circle in 2010.

"I'm at a loss as to why people don't seem to understand the traffic impacts this will create," Kernan said. " ... You can't just ignore it."

Town manager Steve Riley said plans for the hospitality program are only preliminary. Before anything is built on Office Park Road, traffic studies will be done, as Kernan and others have urged.

Improvements will probably be needed at the intersection of Pope Avenue and Office Park Road, Riley and town traffic engineer Darrin Shoemaker said. Improvements at New Orleans Road probably would be needed, too.

"We have always found a way to manage to do something to mitigate traffic impact," Riley said. "Is Sea Pines Circle an issue? Yes. Is it insurmountable? No. I'm confident town staff can find a solution to properly manage traffic so that residents are not inconvenienced and that congestion around the Sea Pines Circle is controlled."

And because school would be out during summer, residents won't have to deal with the combination of student traffic and tourist traffic then, he said.

University officials also believe traffic concerns have been overstated, as students would come and go throughout the day, rather than arriving for an 8:15 a.m. bell and departing at 3 p.m., as local high school students do. Also, many students and university employees would avoid the circle altogether, using New Orleans Road instead, according to USCB vice chancellor for advancement Lynn McGee.

No other location on the island meets the university's criteria for a school site, McGee said. Those include:

  • Availability of proceeds from a special tax district to help pay for the project, including roads and other improvements.

  • Affordable, safe housing.

  • Easy access to town paths, stores, restaurants and recreation.

  • Room for expansion.

  • Town, university and business officials have also said putting the campus on Office Park Road would rehab an area blighted by vacant office buildings in disrepair.

    USCB has been absent from Hilton Head since 2004, when it closed its Office Park location and opened the Hilton Head Gateway Campus in Okatie.

    Campus activity will add vibrancy to the island, as it once did, town officials and nearby business have said. Forty island businesses near the proposed location have lent their names to a petition supporting the project, which they believe could spur revitalization of the area.

    USCB students also regularly conduct environmental and market research on the island, and many of the school's 200 hospitality students have internships at Hilton Head resorts, hotels and restaurants.

    "The lack of a single, permanent building to house and support these varied initiatives limits USCB's potential service to the island," McGee said.

    Riley and Mayor Drew Laughlin also say a USCB facility would be much less disruptive than other enterprises allowed by the area's zoning, such as a hotel.

    "Something has got to happen there," Riley said. "It looks terrible and it looks bad on the town and Sea Pines to continue to have this deterioration right outside the gate."

    Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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