Concerns over the economic decline on Hilton Head Island were brought to the forefront Tuesday by business owners during a debate among candidates running for mayor of Hilton Head.
Island resident Charles Strauch, owner of GA Services LLC, organized the debate at the Hilton Head Island High School auditorium. The debate was moderated by WHHI TV host Jane Jude.
For the first time in 15 years, voters will elect a new mayor to fill an open seat in November's nonpartisan general election.
Seven candidates are vying to succeed Mayor Tom Peeples, who is not seeking re-election.
Candidates include Jim Collett, former chairman of the town's Board of Zoning Appeals; Tom Crews, architect and town Planning Commission member; Ward 1 Councilman Bill Ferguson; Ward 3 Councilman Drew Laughlin; Ward 4 Councilman John Safay; Ed McCullough, former host at WHHI, a local independent TV station; and Dave Myers, part owner of Kigre Inc.
Ferguson did not participate in Tuesday's debate, but gave a closing remark. saying the mayor should work with the council closely to get things accomplished.
Tuesday's debate, which filled the auditorium and lasted more than two hours, focused on issues of significance to the Hilton Head business community, specifically the chamber of commerce, the hospitality sector and a coalition of small businesses.
"While many residents are content with their life style on this unique island, there are many significant economic issues that relate to their interests," Strauch said, "for example, residential and commercial property values. That must be addressed by the council and the mayor in the next few years," .
Jude echoed those comments in her opening remarks.
"Changes in the economy, both locally and national, resulting in declines in tourism and real estate values are prompting us to re-evaluate how we earn our living. The mayor and town council, which would have as many as one to four new members, will have tough new jobs," Jude said. "The mayor will have to display extraordinary leadership to build consensus among county government, our municipalities and the various parts of our own community."
Candidates expressed a dichotomy of views on whether some changes were necessary, particularly when it came to the town's Land Management Ordinance, with Safay supporting the status quo and the other candidates believing more drastic changes are needed.
QUESTION: Considering the perception that Hilton Head Island's current Land Management Ordinance restricts commercial development, what specific changes to the LMO or to other town policies would you support to make redevelopment of existing properties easier for business owners?
Safay: In the past three years, " there have been 14 major changes to the LMO all of which are geared toward making redevelopment on our island much, much easier for business. It is unfortunate that goes unrecognized ... We created floating zones ... that will enable businesses to be able to develop in areas where they wouldn't have been able to do so before."
Laughlin: "Three years ago at the annual retreat, the town council adopted as a prime priority a complete rewrite of the LMO, largely because of my advocacy for that ... . We have not done that. We continue to (bandage) an old ordinance that does not suit our current needs, making it more complicated and more difficult to deal with. Part of the problem is how it deals with nonconformity and how it freezes our aging buildings in place. We have not addressed that ... . (Changes to the LMO) simply add another level of administrative procedures that the applicant has to jump through to get limited relief to a real problem."
Crews: "The band aid issue is disturbing ... . Some of the problems we have here on the island are that some of the structures we have that are unoccupied have to do with use-based zoning that is inflexible. We see a lot of applicants who come forth with very good use, but it's difficult to approve ... That needs to change."
Collett: Agreed that the LMO needs more flexibility to allow businesses to redevelop. He also called for a change in the culture of “no” at town hall.
McCullough: "You can be in the back of the house all day long and rewrite the LMO from here to Timbuktu ... I was at a meeting proposing the town of Hilton Head Island start a farmer's market ... They brought the LMO to the meeting as some kind of convoluted support of the notion we should take our wonderful event and move it to Bluffton, and we did. It's not just the ordinance. It's the culture of the people in the front office" that needs to change.
Myers: Did not answer the question
QUESTION: In light of national and local declines in tourism, what specific solutions and leadership would you provide for increased funding to effectively market Hilton Head Island against competitive destinations with much larger marketing and tourism development budgets? In answering this question, please address the importance of town support for and continued funding of the Heritage Classic Golf Tournament.
Crews: Said he believes the town needs to do more to market the island to retirees and corporate hospitality. He also said the Heritage has incredible value to the island, but did not offer an opinion of what the town should do to support itbeyond what has already been done.
Safay: Said the loss of the Heritage would be demoralizing for the community. He said he wished he had time to consider a better plan than the $1 million the town awarded. He proposes the town should have given $1 million for 2011 and another $1 million in 2012 to show it's prepared to do whatever it takes to see the tournament continue into the foreseeable future. He also believes more money is needed by the chamber of commerce for tourism marketing and supports a proposal for as much as a 1 percent increase in the accommodations tax, which is paid by tourists.
Laughlin: Believes the mayor should do more to be "advocate in chief for Hilton Head Island" by reaching out to businesses and private investors statewide, promoting the island as a wonderful place to invest their dollars.
Collett: Said the island's economy has been driven by a steady stream of tourists and retirees, but fewer people are retiring because of loss of pensions and eroding retirement savings. Like Laughlin, he said the town needs to better advertise itself to tourists, retirees and young professionals, particularly through a new Web site.
McCullough: 'We need someone who is a promoter and an entrepreneur.' He also called for fiscal responsibility to see 'where every dollar is invested as opposed to expensed.'
Myers: Said he agrees the Heritage is an important event, but would have preferred to see the town offer tournament organizers a loan and 'definitely not a gift.'