Frustration surfaces amid economic-development planning

Town staff members and some residents became frustrated Monday as the Hilton Head Island Town Council tried to outline an economic-development strategy.

The council discussed at length the scope and areas where the town should attract new business and encourage others to redevelop or expand.

Ultimately, it agreed a nonprofit corporation with a board of bankers, lawyers and Realtors should be formed to guide public investment to leverage private money, revitalize aging commercial centers and diversify the economy.

The council, however, could not agree how such an economic-development corporation would be structured, how much authority it should have and whether it should recruit businesses.

Economic-development corporations are nonprofit organizations usually chartered by a local government to provide incentives for businesses to locate or expand in area, town comprehensive planning manager Shawn Colin said.

The council asked the town's staff to propose the mission, makeup, authority and town support -- including money and staff -- for a corporation. The proposal will be discussed by council in December.

Members debated what economic development should mean for the island, if town staff has the experience to support such an endeavor, whether it should hire someone who does and whether recruiting businesses to the island should be left to the regional Lowcountry Economic Alliance.

The lack of consensus frustrated town manager Steve Riley.

"We tried to do too many things for too long and haven't done much because we spread ourselves too thin," he said. "... We need to be targeted and reactive to things brought to us, and aggressive in other select areas. ... But I've sat through this conversation too long, and we need to make decisions and get on with it."

Kumar Viswanathan, member of a task force appointed by former Mayor Tom Peeples, also was upset by council's indecision.

Among the task force's recommendations to council in August 2010 were creating "investment zones," a redevelopment authority or community-development corporation, and an economic-development commission that promotes new business.

"We can't wait anymore. ... Businesses are moving off-island," Viswanathan said. "We need to be on the forefront of recruiting businesses and promoting Hilton Head. ... We are on a downward spiral, and we need to stop it."

Mayor Drew Laughlin said he believes the town has made strides in removing impediments from town codes and procedures for businesses to expand and redevelop, but an economic-development corporation would help the town evaluate development proposals.

Councilman Bill Harkins said he recognizes many are becoming impatient, but believes the town "is on the cusp of something worthwhile."

Hilton Head looks to other towns for revitalization ideas: Sept. 26, 2011

Hilton Head turns to Columbia, Greenville for economic-development ideas: Oct. 18, 2010