Two challengers and an incumbent made their cases to be Ward 1's representative on Hilton Head Island's Town Council Wednesday night at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area.
Incumbent Bill Ferguson, 64, council's longest-serving member and lone minority, has represented Ward 1 since 1993. The sometime controversial figure has rarely faced opposition. Now, native islanders Marc Grant, 41, and Charles E. Houston Jr., 71, are challenging him in the Nov. 6 election.
Ferguson said he should be re-elected to another four-year term because his experience is needed as the town looks to diversify its economy, become less dependent on tourism and redevelop aging commercial centers.
"I ain't done yet.," he said. "I feel obligated to remain on council until these programs get put in the works."
He said he would continue to guide efforts to update the town's zoning and land-use rules to encourage economic revival, making sure "Ward 1 gets (an) equitable share and consideration."
Grant, a former teacher and school administrator in Beaufort and Jasper counties, took over the family business, Grant's Mini Market, in 2008.
He said a top priority, if elected, will be promoting the preservation of Gullah neighborhoods and historic structures to maintain the culture that grew from descendants of west African slaves brought to work on ante-bellum plantations.
He also said Ferguson has become detached from his constituents. Grant vowed to be more engaged and conduct quarterly meetings with residents to discuss community goals and issues.
"Our community has not truly received effective communication of what's going on," he said. "Bill Ferguson has done a good job, but it's time for a change. ... Communication has been strained and my goal is to bring people together to sit down and solve problems ... ."
Houston, a lawyer who was disbarred for ethical violations in 1994 and reprimanded by the S.C. Supreme Court in 2009, believes his work as an attorney gives him the ability to be effective for Ward 1.
"I'm articulate and know the issues and know how to be an effective advocate," he said.
He supports expanding the island airport and proposes the Federal Aviation Administration pay to move St. James Baptist Church, which sits at the north end of the runway, to Mitchelville.
"That allows the runway be expanded and let's St. James move to a historic site that needs money," Houston said.
Grant and Ferguson oppose airport expansion and said they would fight to protect the church and keep it where it is.
All three would seek more support from the town to preserve Mitchelville, a 150-year-old site believed to be America's first planned community for freed slaves.
All also said they'd intensify efforts to pave dirt roads and expand water and sewer service in the ward. None, however, offered specifics.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.