Beaufort News

Change can come in the blink of an eye

I went to The Mall at Shelter Cove on Hilton Head Island last week, at 2 p.m. on a weekday. To say it was quiet in there would be an understatement. The only noise came from the tumbleweeds passing by and a coyote gnawing on a bone in a corner. It was like Death Valley with kiosks.

If you've followed Hilton Head commerce in the past few years -- and, really, who hasn't? -- then you will, no doubt, know that the mall has been a source of constant debate. There have been several plans to save it -- including adding a multiplex movie theater (which probably would've done the "saving" trick) -- but so far, nothing has happened.

So now it sits there, dying a slow death. I did not do a formal count, but it seemed as if more than half the stores were empty. And it's not like the vacant stores are all clustered together. It's more like, "Empty store. Empty store. Oooh, look, fudge sample! Empty store. Empty store."

A few of the abandoned storefronts had signs alerting customers the previous tenant had moved to the big, shiny, new Tanger Outlet Center in Bluffton -- the mall's natural enemy. (That's cold. It's like leaving your husband and sticking a photo of you and Brad Pitt on the door with a caption that says, "I no longer live here. I'm with this guy!") The only action was in the woman's section of Belk -- but once you step out of that store's doors it's like a zombie apocalypse ... but with fewer people.

I do not report the sad state of Hilton Head mall affairs with any sort of glee but, rather, as a cautionary tale. It's a reminder of how something good can go to bad, can go to worse.

A mall on an island in the South, where heat in the summer sometimes reaches 242 degrees (just my estimate based on how much I complain about it), seems like a no-brainer. "People love to shop! People love to be indoors! Let's put them together!" And, yet, here it is, failing.

So when we look at downtown Beaufort and see the empty storefronts, or we notice a closing restaurant here, a failing hotel there, or we count the number of Dollar General stores that have seemingly sprung up overnight, we should not take those signs lightly. (Hey, I like the DG, too; I'm just saying -- if your town has more than four Generals, the local economy is telling you something.)

Even the best ideas can fail. The last time I was in that mall was around a year ago, and while it was not a pretty sight -- probably 70 percent occupancy -- it was nowhere near the terminal case it is now. It happens fast. Let that be the lesson.

We should adapt a sense of urgency in everything we do, locally. We cannot take for granted that businesses will relocate here or that tourists will visit every summer or that the military will always be our neighbors. If you have a favorite local restaurant or store or art gallery -- frequent it. Don't assume it will just be there next week or next month or next year.

We must work hard to assure our future, not sit back and wait for it.

Case in point: Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Carlotta Ungaro announced in late March she'd be leaving her position in April. The search committee met for the first time last week, with a goal of having a new CEO in place before July 1. It's also working on a job description, which should be on the website soon, allowing prospects to start sending in their resumes.

One would think that, if you know for a month that the CEO is leaving, you might want to have the search committee meet a little sooner. I'm no meeting planner, but the chamber is important to our economy, and having a definitive leader is essential, the sooner the better. We can't wait for tomorrow.

The sky is not falling in Beaufort -- I don't think so, at least. But that's the thing about a sky falling: It tends to happen quickly. Poof. Next thing you know, you're dodging clouds.

Or you're closing shop and heading to the retail-outlet promised land.