Soulless, culturally sterile and overdeveloped — does that sound like Hilton Head Island to you?
It might not, but 10 years ago those were just a few of the words National Geographic used to describe the island when the magazine labeled it one of 14 islands “in trouble” across the world.
In the November/December 2007 issue of National Geographic Traveler Magazine, more than 500 environmentalists, tourism industry experts and other researchers ranked 111 islands from “best rated islands” to “islands in balance” to “islands in trouble.”
According to the survey, Hilton Head, Jamaica, Key West and a handful of other islands all faced a loss of natural charm due to rampant over-development, which was threatening their environment and depleting their culture and heritage.
The article specifically said this about Hilton Head: “Classic over-development of a natural wonder. Aesthetics win praise, but the suburbanized island is ‘soulless’ with few hints of its Gullah past ... culturally sterile and deliberately elitist. Beaches still beautiful.”
Jonathan Tourtellot, the author of the list and director of the Center for Sustainable Destinations for the National Geographic Society, said at that time, “In a way, any island can change its score, preferably upward, in deciding what its future course will be.”
So, over the past 10 years, has Hilton Head changed anything to alter “its future course”?
Residents and town officials have mixed feelings.
Charlie Clark, vice president of communications for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, called the list “extremely subjective and, quite frankly, eco-elitist” when it first came out.
Reflecting on it 10 years later, Clark said that when you take into account the numerous awards Hilton Head has received in recent years, the National Geographic piece was “such an outlier article that it was looked upon as such.”
“The island was designed to be what it is,” she said. “When Charles Fraser and those he worked with put forth the premise to build a destination that balances resort and nature, he always said nature rules. That was a radical idea at the time and still is.”
According to Clark, the Town of Hilton Head Island was always committed to preserving the natural beauty and history of the island and that nothing has changed.
Other residents, however, argue the opposite.
“If we made as much effort preserving the Gullah culture as we do preserving the turtles, I think we’d be a much more soulful community,” said Emory S. Campbell, a Gullah leader and Hilton Head native.
According to Campbell, Gullah people have been driven off Hilton Head for years due to rising taxes. “It’s an indirect negative result of development for Gullah families,” he said.
Although the town has tried to provide more information about the island’s history in recent years, Campbell said, “there’s still a long way to go.”
“I don’t think the Gullah culture has ever been considered when it comes to the development on Hilton Head Island,” Tai Scott, who’s lived on Hilton Head since 1997, said in a recent interview. “Gullah has never been considered as a way of bringing economic opportunity and sustainability here, in my opinion.”
In 1995, a team of elite architects hired by the Town of Hilton Head produced a report on problems created by the island’s racially divided community.
The landmark “Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team” study determined there had been a “chronic failure” by the town to equitably address the needs of all of its residents. Too many residents, mostly black native islanders, lived on dirt roads and too few had access to basic services of sewer and water.
More than 20 years after the RUDAT study and 10 years since the National Geographic article, most of those recommendations have been stalled or ignored.
“We’re the No. 1 island in the U.S., No. 2 in the world, and you’ve got a community living in sub-standard conditions, really?” Scott said.
Pennie Grimes, president of Hilton Head Island Land Trust, believes organizations like the Land Trust have worked harder throughout the last several years to educate and interpret the island’s historical sites. For instance, earlier this month, The Coastal Discovery Museum, in partnership with the land trust and the Mitchelville Preservation Project, started offering an “Uncovering the Roots of Reconstruction” tour.
Grimes said she believes the tour and other recent efforts to promote the island’s heritage have resulted from a more diverse pool of visitors.
“For a while South Carolina was just not a destination for people of color because of the political situation and the Confederate flag situation,” Grimes said. “Once that was addressed, once people of color felt more welcome and once the next generation of our native islanders began to speak up ... the cultural push just kind of all grew through that time, which was much more recently, to be honest.”
Town Councilman Marc Grant said he couldn’t categorize the changes he’s seen on the island over the past 10 years as “good or bad, but we are working on a lot.”
“I think the challenges we’re facing today are because we never addressed them in the past,” he said. “... The south end (of the island) was overdevelop(ed) while the north end was underdeveloped. We shouldn’t be talking about sewage today, but we have to address it.”
Those challenges, he said, include lack of economic diversity and affordable housing, infrastructure for native islanders and attracting creative, sustainable businesses.
Still, Grant remains hopeful about the island’s future and the changes still to come.
“I think Hilton Head Island is a great place to live, people still want to lay down roots and real estate is starting to come back,” he said. “...In terms of community, we’re becoming better. People are starting to come out and become more involved. You can see that.”