Can we talk?
On Hilton Head Island, apparently not.
A consultant hired to help island leaders create a plan for its future said Friday the town is facing several obstacles to achieving its goals — one being that residents simply can’t talk to one another in a civil manner. The comments came during the town’s Vision Project Management Team meeting.
Residents are “hypercritical,” and can’t engage in civic or civil dialogue, according to David Beurle, CEO of Future IQ, a Minnesota-based company specializing in future and strategic planning.
Beurle has led the charge in the vision project aimed at creating a road map for the future, at a taxpayer cost of $165,000. According to the Vision and Strategic Action Plan released last week, about 3,000 people contributed through surveys, workshops and focus-group sessions.
After studying that input, Beurle said the town’s “preferred future” includes, among other things:
▪ A more diverse community
▪ An economy that includes technology, tourism and environmental services
▪ Alternate transportation systems
▪ Increased density, with more options for workforce housing
▪ More accessible communities and access to water-based activities
But none of that can happen if Hilton Head doesn’t change its ways, he said.
“I’ve stood in rooms where booing and hissing occurs,” Beurle said. “You’re a hypercritical community. And not in a constructive sense, but in a destructive way where we’re not going to respect the other view. ... However, the implication is that you will have declined participation, you’ll have stagnation, you’ll have the promise of something remarkable, but just somehow or another you never quite get there.”
“You have issues that are far bigger than your individual concerns,” Beurle said.
Gated communities vs. everybody else
Some of this divide, he said, is caused by the “deep levels of distrust” throughout the community.
One facet of that distrust is between those who live in gated communities and feel threatened by change, Beurle said, and those who do not and want change.
There is also an “existential crisis” happening in the Gullah Geechee community, he said.
The 1995 R/UDAT (Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team) report said Native Islanders were marginalized and excluded. According to the report released Friday, not much has changed since then.
“If that (Gullah Geechee concerns) doesn’t get dealt with, your island will be poorer for it,” Beurle said. “You’ll be a poorer community and you’ll lack vitality and a pride in history.”
How to fix the problem
For Hilton Head to change anything, Beurle said, it’s going to take hard work.
That work starts with something simple, he said.
Those who don’t want any change might have to give a little.
Those who do might have to slow down.
The divide among residents has been apparent in battles brought to Town Hall in 2017.
In the summer months, Bradley Circle residents wanted their neighborhood rezoned.
The issue sparked a passionate debate about the rights of Native Islanders. All but three parcels were rezoned to satisfy a Native Islander and other residents who did not want their zoning changed. Despite the compromise, many residents made it clear they were unhappy with the decision.
In the fall, residents expressed loyalty to either Mayor David Bennett or town manager Steve Riley in a public debate about Riley’s future.
At a meeting, a woman held a sign proclaiming “You fire Riley I’ll work to prevent your reelection!” At one point, Bennett banged the gavel to silence booing when a resident said Riley “threw the mayor under the bus and took all the glory for (Hurricane) Matthew.”
But these instances of an inability to compromise or to speak to one another respectfully can’t happen if the community is to move forward, according to Beurle.
“There is a compelling opportunity for community members to act now for future generations, and to create a lasting legacy,” the vision report said.
“This will only be achieved by the collective actions of a community working together.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the preferred future includes increased density with more workforce housing options.