Dick Stewart just gave Beaufort 2.9 million new reasons to wonder what he's thinking.
In December, his real estate development and management company placed another $2.9 million bet that Beaufort's historic downtown can be a thriving place to live, work and visit.
The latest plans by 303 Associates will change the look of three city blocks, with proposed new cottages eventually doubling the size of the Beaufort Inn to 64 rooms. The old Piggly Wiggly building on Port Republic Street, now cold and empty, is to be renovated into meeting space. Two parking lots will be closed to make way for buildings, but the center of this deal is the old Trask parking lot. Stewart said he bought it to meet his needs, but would cooperate with others if it is to be made into a place for more parking.
Stewart was 48 when he retired and moved to Beaufort. He's now 64, and deals like this have kept him in the public eye the whole time.
His company has renovated dilapidated buildings, including the Francis Saltus House on Bay Street, which had fallen into disrepair after Belk moved out. It restored the Anchorage House, the Old Bay Market Place, and much more.
He developed Newcastle Square on Boundary Street as the entryway to downtown Beaufort. It's best known for the Talbots store.
He is redeveloping a 50-acre tract along Boundary Street, calling it Beaufort Town Center and the gateway to Beaufort. It had a tired strip mall named for French explorer Jean Ribaut, and a closed highway department maintenance facility. Now it houses new businesses, restaurants, offices, a few residences and two new hotels.
Stewart has served on Beaufort County Council, chaired charitable and civic boards, and has donated to many causes -- such as giving Crystal Lake for a county park, $11,000 to help DragonBoat Beaufort fight cancer, or the first $100,000 to establish the Port Royal Sound Foundation for environmental protection.
All of this has left people scratching their heads. People sometimes say his heart is in the right place and he's a godsend for Beaufort, but he can be a bull in a china shop who wants it all and wants it now.
"I accept that," he told me last week. "It's part of being the person who is the first in his family on either side to go to college, who chafed in the corporate environment and went out on his own as an entrepreneur and worked in an environment of constant deal-making. When people tell my wife I'm stubborn, she says I'm 'committed.' She tells them maybe it means he has thought it through and is ready for action."
Action was hard to find on the farm two miles outside of Ellenton, Ga., population 280, where Stewart lived as a child. A drought in the late 1950s forced his father to move. They came to Bluffton when Dick was in the fifth grade.
His father helped build the first 18 holes at Palmetto Dunes Resort, Port Royal Plantation and Fripp Island. One of Dick's first jobs was mowing the grass air strip on Hilton Head Island, in what is today Port Royal Plantation.
Stewart moved to Beaufort for his senior year in high school, the class of 1967.
At Georgia Southern University, he took his girlfriend a box of Valentine candy, but she wasn't home. Her best friend answered the door. That's how Stewart met Sharon Sullivan of Savannah. They've been married 38 years and have one daughter, a psychologist married to an engineer.
Stewart spent 10 years in sales and marketing with Motorola in Atlanta, then joined an upstart telecommunications company called MCI. Two years later he started his own business in specialized mobile radio. It was the fourth-largest company in its field when Stewart sold in 1994 to a company that became known as Nextel.
He formed a tower company in the Atlanta area, building and operating towers for broadcast television, broadcast radio, two-way radio, paging and cellphone users. They were completing several towers per week when he and investors formed a national tower company that bought some 3,500 towers before selling to American Tower Corp. of Boston.
"I stepped off the board, subsequently sold my Atlanta-based towers into that, but kept the property underneath a number of those sites," Stewart said.
Dick and Sharon Stewart now live on Spring Island, but when he retired they bought a house on the Point called "Rhett's Folly" at 303 Federal St. While Beekman Webb was renovating it he suggested that Stewart revitalize the old Kress department store building on Bay Street.
"Theoretically, I was going to retire," Stewart said, "but as those of us who are over 50 know, you tend to take your pathologies with you."
The first local initiative Stewart dived into was the push for the University of South Carolina Beaufort to become a four-year degree granting institution.
"My view is that Beaufort is a college town waiting for a college," he said. "That college will hopefully be USCB, but that's a decision for them to make. If I had my preferences, I would see 3,000 to 5,000 students at the New River location and 2,000 or so students in Beaufort."
He foresees the small freedmen's cottages of the Northwest Quadrant being restored to house college students. But he thinks the college needs a "beach head" of housing in the area of Prince Street where former county buildings, the former school district headquarters and the old county jail are located.
He thinks churches should combine forces to build a home for the elderly downtown.
He thinks a new historic commission is needed at the county level, or even broader, to focus on building and marketing history-based tourism.
He thinks the same thing is needed for environmental tourism.
He thinks the county's link to Spain and France -- and its under-appreciated role in the habitation of the New World -- needs to be exploited, beginning with more attention to the Santa Elena site on Parris Island.
He thinks the old county courthouse building should be used to tell the story of Beaufort County's role in Reconstruction.
He thinks the Beaufort Downtown Marina site would most likely be redeveloped for hotel and condominium space -- certainly not retail.
He thinks better marketing is needed to bring larger groups of people to enjoy the "authenticity" of Beaufort.
He thinks 303 Associates has gotten much larger than he ever anticipated. He says it has included "a lot of front-end loading," inefficiencies and meager returns on some of its investments. He thinks it may all pay off for his granddaughter. She's 2 1/2.
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.