Hilton Head turns to Columbia, Greenville for economic-development ideas

Town of Hilton Head Island officials are looking to the success of public-private partnerships in Columbia and Greenville for ideas as they try to revitalize the island's aging commercial centers.

The town's Planning and Development Standards Committee heard presentations during its meeting Monday from economic development officials from both communities.

The secret: Have a vision; plan; use public investment to leverage economic development; be willing to take risks and make mistakes; and have patience.

"There are no guarantees. You have to have that entrepreneurial spirit about you to get the rewards you're seeking," said Nancy Whitworth, director of economic development for the City of Greenville.

Greenville, for example, approved a public/private partnership in 2005 for a $65 million project involving nine buildings, including a 100-room hotel and residential, retail and office space. The project was controversial and the city was sued because it used eminent domain to buy property for a river walk. Though the city won, a jury ruled it should pay the owner three times more than an appraised value, Whitworth said.

"It was worth it," Whitworth said. "We knew what we wanted to do. We had a plan and knew what the end result would be and knew the public would use the space and it turned out marvelously."

From 2005 to 2008, the city saw more than $100 million in new private investment along the Reedy River, according to news accounts and city officials.Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., shared similar stories about redevelopment along the Congaree River. Public-private partnerships turned 300 acres, including a once-vital warehouse district, into a center of entertainment, shopping, dining, the arts and housing.

Whitworth said the town can redevelop if it focuses on maximizing space and investment by mixing commercial and residential uses in a single building, recruits retail, creates a signature landmark, looks at quality over quantity, and lets the marketplace drive the project.

"Public investment is the spark plug, the private sector is the engine," she said.

Councilman and committee member Drew Laughlin said while Hilton Head does not face the same issues or have the same community characteristics as Greenville or Columbia, the concepts remain the same and the lessons valuable.

"We've done things on a small scale using tax increment financing districts and with public improvements to Mathews Drive and the Coligny Beach area," Laughlin said. "But are we willing to be bolder and take that risk? Are we willing to use public investment to be that spark plug? I think we've come to a point where we need to put economic development on par with protecting our natural resources, if we are to have a vibrant, sustainable economy."