Board: Upgrades needed to attract tech business to the island

tbarton@islandpacket.comJanuary 14, 2014 

Hilton Head Island must support the digital entrepreneurs who are driving technological advances and creating jobs if is to remain competitive in the global economy.

That was the message Tuesday from the town's recently formed Economic Development Corporation, during the last of a two-day workshop to discuss how Hilton Head should go about attracting business to the island.

"Hilton Head has always been considered a world-class destination, and we want to make sure the communication and technology capabilities of the island fit with the rest of what we're known for," said Tom Upshaw, chairman of the eight-member Economic Development Corporation board.

Upshaw also is president and CEO of Palmetto Electric Cooperative.

Business models are changing as more and more companies jump on the cloud-computing revolution, shifting away from hardware and software that they maintain to low-cost, maintenance-free services based on the Internet and run by private companies.

Lacking wireless and broadband capabilities makes Hilton Head ill-equipped to accommodate such business, according to the group. However, the town hopes to become a magnet for small technology companies, much as the neighboring town of Bluffton has, said councilman Bill Harkins, who attended the workshop.Within the next 18 months, the corporation intends to meet with local cable, Internet and wireless-communication providers to assess the island's fiber optic network and other telecommunications infrastructure. It also will attempt to identify opportunities to improve coverage in key commercial areas, at an undetermined cost and funding source.

The group also intends to meet with real estate brokers to assess commercial office space on Hilton Head.

Expansion of broadband service is being pursued by others, as well.

Mayor Drew Laughlin said during last week's State of the Town address that a task force of telecommunications experts formed by the Greater Island Council of Hilton Head Island and Bluffton intends to enlist Connect South Carolina, a subsidiary of nationwide nonprofit organization that helps communities expand broadband Internet access.First-class wireless service is "not just a function of dropped cellphone calls," but attracting more tourists, business meetings and a mobile workforce that needs to stay connected, Laughlin said during last week's address before the local League of Women Voters.

"The folks we hope to attract to Hilton Head Island in future will demand that type of infrastructure - young professional and folks who can conduct business from anywhere in the world," he said. "From an economic development and quality of life standpoint it's something we have to achieve."

The Planning Commission agrees. In order to sustain and improve the island's appeal and grow its health care, corporate hospitality, tourism and real estate markets, the town "needs to fully embrace the issue and play 'catch up' to avoid putting its economic future at risk," according to the commission's suggested "Targets for Action" by the town in 2014.

Video: Three initiatives for Economic Development Corporation (1:25)

Tom Upshaw, chairman of the Town of Hilton Head Island's Economic Development Corporation and president and CEO of Palmetto Electric Cooperative, discusses Jan. 14, 2014, the major initiatives that arose during the two-day workshop of the newly-formed corporation. Tom Barton

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