An open mayoral seat invites a bumper crop of candidates in Hilton Head

Seven people are seeking the ability to wield the gavel as mayor of the Town of Hilton Head Island.
Seven people are seeking the ability to wield the gavel as mayor of the Town of Hilton Head Island.

With anxiety over the local economy's future and no incumbent seeking re-election, there appears to be a record number of candidates for mayor of the Town of Hilton Head Island.

Seven candidates will vie to succeed Mayor Tom Peeples, who is not seeking re-election after 15 years. That's more competition than Peeples faced in any of his four elections.

Those running for mayor are Jim Collett, former chairman of the town Board of Zoning and Appeals; Tom Crews, architect and town Planning Commission member; Ward 1 Councilman Bill Ferguson; Ward 3 Councilman Drew Laughlin; Ed McCullough, host of a WHHI public-access television show; Dave Myers, part owner of Kigre Inc.; and Ward 4 Councilman John Safay.

Six more will vie for three seats on the Town Council.

"Hilton Head is its own special case, it seems, as the mayor's race goes," said Scott Marshall, executive director of the Beaufort County Board of Voter Registration and Elections. "It's unusual for that kind of office to have that many candidates. The residents of Hilton Head ought to be encouraged that there is such an eagerness by the candidates to run for mayor.

"We'd like to see that kind of competition among the rest of the offices in the county -- maybe not to that extent. I hope that all translates to heavy voter turnout."

Marshall said a runoff for mayor is likely. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority -- not merely a plurality -- of votes. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote Nov. 2, the top two vote-getters will head to a runoff Nov. 16.

That would contrast with most town elections over the past decade, which were not as spirited, said town clerk Betsy Mosteller.

For example, when Peeples last was re-elected, in 2005, he faced only one opponent, and the three Town Council incumbents faced none. In 2009, however, a six-way special election to replace council member Bill Mottel, who resigned for health reasons, led to a runoff.

From 1983 through 1995, when Peeples was first elected mayor, elections were hotly contested, Mosteller said. Since then, elections have been much calmer. Not many seemed interested in challenging a popular, entrenched incumbent, she said.

But with Peeples stepping down, the floodgates have opened.

"Lack of an incumbent opened up the field. Running against an incumbent, particularly a popular one, is always difficult," said Collett, who decided to join the crowded race for mayor.

The recession also played a key role in bringing out the candidates.

"Up until three years ago we had a robust economy. Things were going well. Property values were high and unemployment was almost nonexistent," Peeples said. "People were comfortable and content. Things were going on an even keel -- no tax increases. Things were getting done and there was no controversial issue. Of course, all that has changed now."

Other issues might also be driving the urge to run for office.

Town officials face choices about whether to lengthen the runway of the Hilton Head Island Airport, and they have said the number of people who visit the island has declined. Redevelopment has come to the fore as the island reaches build-out and some parts of the island begin to show their age.

This equates to a broader challenge for the town's future leaders: What will be done to address the evolution of the island's economy?

The candidates for mayor give their views:

Jim Collett: "The island is entering a critical moment. Some of the things that worked well in the past aren't working now. We have to look at some different options as to what we do with redevelopment, cell phone coverage and the future of the airport ... . Also, we can no longer depend as much on retirees. We need to diversify the economy."

Tom Crews: "We need to shift from a developer economy ... to an economically sustainable base that works for the island. ... We need to build an environment that the young professionals can raise their family in and provides for their needs."

Bill Ferguson: "I don't have the pessimistic view others have about the island's economy. Our budget grew from $72 million to $74 million from 2009 to 2010. So something's happening. We do need to see why some businesses have chosen to move off the island."

Drew Laughlin: "I would like to see us reassess our land-management ordinance. ... Maintaining standards is still important, but we are not dealing with the rapid-growth situation any more that threatened to overwhelm us. We are dealing with a more mature community. We should look at being a little more accommodating to our business community and more responsive to the need to attract private investment for redevelopment."

Ed McCullough: "The new mayor needs to be a promoter of the island and change the culture of Town Hall so that it is no longer adversarial to business. ... The town is absolutely at a crossroads, and we have to resurrect the vision and values and covenants of Charles Fraser," founder of Sea Pines.

Dave Myers: "We need to be more proactive with individual business on the island, making it easier for small businesses to survive and thereby attracting other businesses to the island."

John Safay: "As a small-business owner, I invite others to work with our town staff in a new spirit of cooperation, and (I will) do whatever I can to support our tourism and real estate industry to work to attract new business."