Mayor's task force outlines recommendations to fuel Hilton Head's economy

Finding private money to pay for business startups and creating new commissions to guide development are among a list of recommendations unveiled to stem economic decline on Hilton Head Island.

The Mayor's Task Force for the Island's Future released a draft of its final report Monday.

Mayor Tom Peeples formed the task force in December because he believed the recession highlighted distressing trends, Peeples said.

The 13-member group spent the next eight months reviewing town planning documents and data to form strategies to reverse those trends and establish a vision for the island for the next 25 years.

The task force recommendations are merely suggestions. Peeples said the next step is for town staff and council to review the report before considering its adoption.

One aim was to make the island's economy less dependent upon tourism, Peeples said. The group also sought to address the declining number of visitors, anemic demand for new business, the poor condition of some commercial buildings, slow pace of redevelopment, lack of public gathering spots and off-island population growth.

Island resorts provide a steady stream of future residents and real estate prospects, the report states, and will continue to be the primary economic driver for some time. However, the number of visitors fell 20 percent, from a high of 2.5 million in 2000 to about 2 million in 2008, according to the town's annual financial report. The decline has meant a loss of $250 million to $300 million a year for the island's economy, according to town and census data.

Tourism generates about $1 billion a year, accounting for 70 percent of gross retail spending on the island, according to town data.

"Having an economy that is (more or less) 70 percent dependent on a single segment is not a particularly good recipe, or sound basis, for sustainability," the report states.

The task force recommended:

Chairman David Ames said he is proud of the task force's work.

"These recommendations are not meant to change the long-standing core values of the community, but preserve them," Ames said. "It's also time to realize the sources of income for the community have changed over the last 10 years. These recommendations are meant to broaden and deepen the island's economy."

The task force also recommended the town and private sector work to draw younger families to the island.

"This island depends on mentoring our younger families to become our island's leaders for tomorrow," Ames said. "We have to find jobs for ambitious, well-educated young people to earn a good living. That means education and recreation facilities, but more importantly, good jobs."

Town Councilman Drew Laughlin, a non-voting member of the task force, said he supports the concepts outlined in the report, but questions the creation of new commissions and committees. Laughlin said he would like to see details on how those groups would be governed, if they would spend tax dollars and the cost they could add to the town's budget.

He said supports a recommendation to establish a private venture-capital fund.

"Access to credit for small business right now is extremely difficult. Entrepreneurs with startups, that type of venture capital, is real hard to come by right now," Laughlin said. "Overall, the task force has done good work, and I think council needs to take a good look at what they recommend and take it to heart."

Ames sent an e-mail to task force members Aug. 25 seeking a consensus on the final draft of the group's report, which was released Monday.

Asked why potential changes or concerns were not discussed in a public meeting, Ames said: "I wanted to make sure there were no more changes to the draft. I wanted to expedite the process to make sure we weren't going to have to reprint the report."

According to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, meetings of all public bodies "including committees, subcommittees, advisory committees" shall be open to the public unless closed under specific exemptions for privacy concerns.

The law also states, "No ... electronic communication may be used in circumvention of the spirit of requirements of this chapter to act upon a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power."

The report from the Mayor's Task Force for the Island's Future will be presented to a joint meeting of Town Council and the town Planning Commission at 3 p.m. Sept. 15 in Council Chambers at Town Hall.