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Wanted: New identity for Hilton Head Island

David Bennett takes his seat during his first town council meeting as the new Mayor of Hilton Head Island on December 2, 2014.
David Bennett takes his seat during his first town council meeting as the new Mayor of Hilton Head Island on December 2, 2014. Staff photo

Hilton Head Island leaders fear the town is losing its edge as a resort destination and that too few younger people are moving in as older residents pass away.

“A lot of people say how Hilton Head is one of the best places to retire, but then another group asks, ‘Why does Hilton Head always have to be the place where people come to die?’” said Town Council member Kim Likins. “I don’t think we’re thinking enough of this as a place where people come to live.”

Those were among some of the concerns expressed by Town Council members Wednesday as they began to craft a vision of what Hilton Head Island should strive to be in the decades to come. Consultant Steven Ames of Oregon was recently hired by the town to dust off old planning documents and gauge community leaders and residents’ interest in creating a new vision for the town. The plan would look at such items as development, traffic, and business and tourism growth.

The first hurdle Hilton Head Island leaders face is getting residents involved in the process of creating a vision. Council members say that becomes especially difficult with so many factions within the town, among them:

▪ Retirees in gated communities, which are like separate towns and their residents often don’t feel engaged with or mistrust local government.

▪ Owners of rental properties who don’t live on the island.

▪ Younger residents in the ungated parts of town who are often the least vocal.

Council member Bill Harkins worried the town’s real estate values were not growing as they should and the tourism industry was not drawing the “high-value customers to the degree that we used to.” Yet many residents seem content with the status quo, he said, despite those warning signs.

“There’s a lot of denial,” he said. “How do you overcome that?”

Hilton Head Realtor Larry Meyers, however, questioned the need for another planning process when there had been three previous plans created over the years, the last one in 2010.

“Why didn’t we get the other visioning processes implemented?” he asked. “What will change now?”

He cited a lack of leadership from town government and advocated replacing the town-manager form of government with a strong full-time mayor and council.

Council member Tom Lennox, who is chairing the committee spearheading the vision process, defended the town’s previous plans, saying many of their recommendations have been implemented, but a new, updated vision is needed.

Ames said the key to community involvement is getting people excited about the town’s future possibilities. To that end, Ames will spend the rest of the week meeting with managers of gated communities, cultural and arts groups, officials with the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and various community and business leaders. He is being paid about $7,000, town officials have said.

The public can have its say at 4 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall.

Ames will make his recommendations to the town’s Public Planning Committee at 10 a.m. Friday at Town Hall. After that, it will be up to Town Council on whether to move forward with creating a vision plan, a process that usually takes six to 18 months, Ames said.

Mayor David Bennett, who called for the vision planning, said the town needs a framework for the future, especially with plans for a Jasper Port on the Savannah River in the next 20 to 30 years that could bring massive development to the area.

“That’s going to change the face of the region,” he said. “Are we going to be changed (by that) or set our own course?

“This is about setting that course based on our assets.”

Don McLoud: 843-706-8139, @IPBG_Don

Want to go?

    • What: Public meeting on Hilton Head vision plan
    • When: 4 p.m. Thursday, council chambers, Hilton Head Town Hall
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