Meet Lee Edwards, Hilton Head's newest member of Town Council

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  • Lee Edwards, president and CEO of the Hilton Head Island-based landscaping company The Greenery, sits with his dog, Lefty.  Edwards won a special election to the Ward 3 Town Council seat vacated by Drew Laughlin, the island's new mayor.
    Lee Edwards, president and CEO of the Hilton Head Island-based landscaping company The Greenery, sits with his dog, Lefty. Edwards won a special election to the Ward 3 Town Council seat vacated by Drew Laughlin, the island's new mayor. Jonathan Dyer, The Island Packet

    He's a hometown boy who loves the open water and runs a family landscaping business.

    With man's best friend at his side.

    Outside Lee Edwards' office sit boxes of binders stamped with the Town of Hilton Head Island's logo. The town's newest councilman has been brushing up on town operations and finances. He spent the past week combing spreadsheets and memos and meeting with department heads.

    The 43-year-old president and CEO of The Greenery captured 56 percent of the vote in a five-way race Feb. 15 for the Ward 3 seat vacated by Drew Laughlin, the island's new mayor. He gathered enough votes to avoid a runoff, confounding expectations -- including his own.

    Edwards was sworn in Tuesday and has his first Town Council meeting under his belt.

    He says he never had a burning desire to be a politician -- until a few month ago -- "but I did have a burning desire to be active in my community."

    He serves as a board member of the Beaufort County Open Land Trust and Hilton Head Preparatory School and is a member of the Coastal Conservation League and the Historic Beaufort Foundation.

    Last year, he co-founded HHI 25, an advocacy group for island residents between the ages of 21 and 45.

    "Enough people said I should think seriously about (running for Town Council), and I thought it was my time to step up and make a positive impact," Edwards said.


    Edwards was born in Greensboro, N.C., and his family moved to Hilton Head when he was 4. He rode bicycles around the island, learned to sail on Calibogue Sound, was a busboy at Truffles Cafe and dug flower beds for his father's landscaping firm.

    He loves racing sailboats and is a strong proponent of the planned rowing and sailing center along Skull Creek.

    "I did a little bit of sailing on the island as a kid, but there's not much access unless you have your own boat," Edwards said. "That's why I'm big on a sailing center for more public access on the water."

    He owned a 40-footer and raced in sailing regattas three to four times in the spring and fall before he and his wife, Becca, had three daughters. The youngest arrived this winter before the election.

    In fact, if it weren't for his job keeping him at his desk, he'd be on the water "surfing, kayaking or power-boating," he said.


    After graduating from Tulane University in 1990 with a bachelor's degree in history and a minor in English, Edwards and a buddy headed to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.

    "We were two 23-year-old guys who didn't know what we were doing and wanted to have some fun -- and we did," Edwards said.

    They got jobs bartending and working construction. The jobs were easy to come by. Housing was another story.

    "It's really expensive. But we found this beat-up boat made of cement. It cost $3,500. We fixed it up and later sold it for a profit," Edwards said. "It was the ugliest boat you could imagine."

    It had no engine, no plumbing and no electricity.

    They anchored off the resort where they tended bar -- a place where clothing was optional.

    "My first day of work, I'm mixing a drink, and these two girls are standing there and ask for drinks. ... I was beside myself, spilling stuff and knocking stuff over."


    After a couple of months, Edwards decided to learn Spanish and travel. He went to Guatemala and Costa Rica to teach English in exchange for Spanish lessons.

    "I really didn't have any great desire to teach. It was a way to make my money and travels last longer," he said. "I grew to enjoy it and got pretty good at it."

    After nine months of tutoring, Edwards decided it was time to return to Hilton Head. Circumstances, though, would send him on a detour.

    With no money for airfare, he found himself at the Panama Canal trying to hitch a ride home.

    "There was a boat with a South Carolina crew going west and they needed a translator and extra deck hand. We hit it off, so I forgot about heading east and went west," he said.

    Edwards hopped from boat to boat for the eight months, including a six-month stint on the crew of a vessel traveling the South Pacific that landed in Tahiti.

    Eventually, he made his way stateside and worked at landscaping companies in Colorado and Maryland before returning home in 1994 to help his father, taking over as construction manager at The Greenery. He started The Greenery of Charleston before moving back to Hilton Head to take over the company in 2007.


    His life now heads into a new, public phase on Town Council, where he plans to focus on updating the island's appearance and boosting its economy, especially to keep and attract young families.

    "We need to focus on revitalizing rundown commercial strips," Edwards said. "We need to rewrite (town ordinances) to do that in an economically friendly manner. There are rundown buildings on the island that, quite frankly, should be torn down. But they won't be because (the ordinance) encourages preservation of languishing buildings. ... We are shrinking, especially on the commercial side."

    The same goes for jobs for younger working families.

    "Kids graduate from college and don't see the economic opportunity on Hilton Head, but would like to live here," Edwards said.

    That hasn't changed much from when he grew up on the island, he said.

    "Unless you were in construction or real estate or the resort business, it was a tough place to find a well-paying job to afford to live here. That's still the case," Edwards said. "We need to broaden the economic base. We need to target industries such as bio-medical research and high-tech electronic manufacturing, as examples."

    David Ames, longtime island developer and former chairman of the Mayor's Task Force for the Island's Future that outlined recommendations to improve the local economy, said Edwards is a needed addition to Town Council.

    "He has a good head on his shoulder and good judgment," Ames said, "and I believe it is critically important that we are developing new, younger leadership that is looking to the future and raising their families here."