The Town of Hilton Head Island's mayoral race is being characterized as a choice between challengers with vision and an incumbent without one.
Challenger David Bennett, currently chairman of the town's Planning Commission, said the town has not been "thinking big" for the past 15 or 20 years.
We beg to differ.
It is the town's role to mind the store, so to speak, and set the stage for a better way of life. In that regard, it would be hard to find a town with greater vision than what has been promoted during incumbent Drew Laughlin's past four years and the previous 10 to 15 years prior to his service.
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Laughlin, a 37-year Hilton Head resident, and other town officials deserve credit for executing perhaps the town's greatest duty in beach nourishment and law enforcement. They have greatly enhanced the fire and emergency medical services, disaster recovery plans, drainage, the movement of traffic, public parks, the bike path network and beautification. The town has worked with utilities and the private sector to expand public water and sewer services. It has given more than $400,000 per year to the arts and strongly supported public recreation programs. It has aided the town's workforce by helping The Children's Center, the Boys & Girls Club and Habitat for Humanity get land for new facilities and a new neighborhood. It has made land available for the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic, the county library branch and the Coastal Discovery Museum.
Additionally, the town, under Laughlin's direct leadership, has revamped its Land Management Ordinance to encourage much-needed redevelopment, cut the amount of time it takes to get permits, updated its comprehensive plan and taken public input on how to improve specific areas across the island.
To us, that represents not only a vision but the right vision.
And the private sector and institutions have responded. The blighted Office Park Road corridor will soon be home to a thriving campus for the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Plans are being hatched for the redevelopment of Pineland Station. Hotels and Sea Pines Resort have/are making multimillion-dollar upgrades to their properties, convinced the island will continue its reign as a world-class tourist destination. And where a nearly empty mall once stood, Shelter Cove Towne Centre is rising.
To be sure, the redevelopment project is lacking, and Laughlin has rightly taken much criticism for it. Indeed, too many trees were cut down and not enough forethought was given to protecting the more than 200 types of birds that roost in a Broad Creek lagoon, where a park is being built. But Laughlin and the developer are right that, given more time, the vegetation will fill in. And more foliage will be planted around the lagoon while an observation platform for birders will be built. It's proof that the town and private sector can successfully work together.
The developers could have built something far less pedestrian-friendly with far fewer trees and more big-box businesses under existing town code. But a partnership between town leaders and the developer allowed for a much improved, far more aesthetically pleasing plan that kept the property in private hands and added a long list of businesses to the tax rolls.
All of this is not to imply that Laughlin has been a perfect mayor. Far from it. Challenger Joe DuBois has rightly homed in on several of Laughlin's recent failures, including the town's $100,000 pledge for a smartphone application and his trip to Columbia to speak on behalf of Coral Resorts, a local timeshare company accused of dubious sales practices.
And challenger Rochelle Williams has said the north end of the island needs more attention, including the paving of dirt roads and expanding sewer service. We agree.
But all of the challengers share one problem. They lack a viable vision superior to the current one.
Indeed, a flawed mayor getting results trumps a perfect mayor without a good plan. We encourage residents to vote for Laughlin Tuesday.