Hilton Head mayor cites progress, looks to advance Coligny, USCB plans

tbarton@islandpacket.comJanuary 8, 2014 

Hilton Head Island mayor Drew Laughlin.

THEOPHIL SYSLO — Staff photo

Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin's to-do list looks somewhat lighter than when he took office three years ago.

The first-term mayor has been able to cross off several key campaign promises made during the 2010 election, he told members of the League of Women Voters of the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area during his "State of the Town" address Wednesday.

But many big-ticket items remain unfinished -- as the town continues to discuss redeveloping the Coligny area and adding a campus for the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

Laughlin said he has stressed economic development, and under his leadership, the town has created a more streamlined permitting process that has helped entice wary developers and businesses to dust off plans that were put aside during the recession.

Council also created an economic-development corporation last year to try to attract business to the island. How it will go about accomplishing that goal remains to be seen.

Town officials are also nearing completion on revised regulations to allow a broader range of land uses and reduce building restrictions.

"We changed the culture a little bit to get us out of the 'Land of Can't,' " Laughlin said. "... As result of those things, we have seen a wave of private investment over the past few years on Hilton Head Island that we haven't seen since the 1980s."

Most notable is the ongoing construction of the $76 million outdoor Shelter Cove Towne Centre shops at the site of the former Mall at Shelter Cove, and major renovations at all of the island's oceanfront hotels.

Island business owners and chamber of commerce officials, however, attribute much of the work to an improving economy and a realization by hoteliers that amenities were beginning to look dated.

Laughlin says he wants to see action on revitalizing the Coligny area.

Town Council chose to go back to the drawing board in November -- for the 23rd time in about 15 years -- on plans to redevelop Coligny. Plans, though, likely will still involve the town using its land to add parking and green space and upgrade nearby streets, Laughlin said.

"I hope, we will refocus efforts down there so it doesn't result in lack of action that has happened up until now," Laughlin said. "Frankly, I'm tired of talking about it. I want to get it done."

He said he's also optimistic the town will be able to extend a tax-increment finance district to allow USCB's hospitality management degree program and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute to build a campus on Office Park Road. The extension is needed to give the town more time and to generate extra revenue needed to move ahead with new plans for the USCB campus, as well as Coligny redevelopment.

Native islander Herbert Ford said after the League of Women Voters event that Laughlin and Town Council "have set a promising path forward for the island," particularly when it comes to bringing USCB back to Hilton Head.

"I have some degree of optimism but need to see more of it actually come to fruition before I can say it's the best path forward," Ford added.

Video: Mayor Drew Laughlin (1:57)

Mayor Drew Laughlin speaks during a meeting of the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island and Bluffton Area at the Hilton Head Public Service District on Jan. 8, 2014. Theophil Syslo

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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