Concerns about an economic decline were brought to the forefront Tuesday during a debate among candidates running for the Ward 3 seat on Hilton Head Island Town Council.
Incumbent Lee Edwards is running against three challengers in the Nov. 6 nonpartisan election. Also running are Andrew Jablonecki II, Ryan McAvoy and Jeff Myers. The area includes Spanish Wells, Wexford, Long Cove Club, Shipyard and Point Comfort.
Edwards, who grew up on the island, ran on a platform of "innovation and preservation" in a 2011 special election to fill the seat vacated by Drew Laughlin after he was elected mayor.
Edwards called then for fresh ideas that attract business to the island while continuing to protect the environment. Among his top priorities were changes to town practices and regulations that make redevelopment of aging island properties more likely. It's an effort he wants to continue.
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"We've made some good strides," Edwards, 44, told an audience of about 25. "... We do have some problems with business on the island and our Land Management Ordinance. We are starting to move in the right direction, but we have a long way to go."
The area still lacks a diverse economy, Edwards said, as its beleaguered housing and construction industries try to recover from the recession.
He said that is why he supports a committee tasked by council to plan the formation of an economic-development group to attract new business sectors to the island, including health-research.
Jablonecki, 28, an island golf apparel merchandiser, supports a proposal by Laughlin to ask the legislature for permission to increase a tax on lodging and use the revenue for marketing to attract more visitors to the island. Edwards said he, too, supports the idea and would like to see groups compete for those dollars, which traditionally go to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
"Myrtle Beach outspends us 12 to 1 in tourism marketing, and tourism is our largest industry," Jablonecki said ". ... When another city, one with an economy very similar to us, outspends us 12 to 1, something needs to be done. We need to be proactive to bring money, business and tourists to our area."
McAvoy and Myers oppose raising the local bed-tax. Instead, McAvoy, 33, a Hilton Head Guest Services employee, said he would focus on improving the island economy by reducing crime.
"Low crime rate is not enough," he said. "We must strive for a zero crime rate. That will drastically cut the rate of real estate foreclosures, increase property values and reverse the decline in the number of people who visit the best place to live in the world."
Myers, 50, sees waste and inefficiency in town government and a lack of adequate leadership.
"Our current town manager does not have any vision, and his economic record bears this out," Myers, chief operating officer and part-owner of island laser-component manufacturer Kigre, Inc., said.
"Hilton Head's economy shrank 20 percent from 2000 to 2008, while the national economy grew, and shrank another 16 percent since then. What's the answer we get from the town manager? Build some new parks."
Myers said he would replace Riley with a town manager "who understands business and economics."
He said he would also eliminate "costly and unnecessary" town boards, commissions and committees, such as the Board of Zoning Appeals, get "excessive" town spending under control by doing a line-by-line cost/benefit analysis of expenditures, and eliminate overstaffing.
The forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.