Hilton Head mayoral candidates square off over airport at first of many forums

Questions about the future of the Hilton Head Island Airport dominated a mayoral forum Monday night hosted by Palmetto Hall and Baygall property owners associations at St. James Baptist Church, which is located just north of the airport.

The Hilton Head Island League of Women Voters moderated the event, one of more than a dozen scheduled by various groups for island candidates.

For the first time in 15 years voters will elect a new mayor to fill an open seat in November's nonpartisan general election.

Seven candidates are vying to succeed Mayor Tom Peeples, who is not seeking re-election.

Candidates for mayor of Hilton Head Island include Jim Collett, former chairman of the town Board of Zoning Appeals; Tom Crews, architect and town Planning Commission member; Ward 1 Councilman Bill Ferguson; Ward 3 Councilman Drew Laughlin; Ward 4 Councilman John Safay; Ed McCullough, former host of a WHHI, a local independent TV station; and Dave Myers, part owner of Kigre Inc.

Crews did not participate in Monday's forum, which drew about 60 people and lasted a little over an hour.

Q: Should the proposed airport extension go forward?

Laughlin: "We need to maintain commercial passenger service. That is the touchstone for me. That is what is important and that is why my position will be informed on that. I am not interested in trying to make Hilton Head Island into a regional airport."

Myers: "I don't think the airport should be expanded. I just don't see the benefits outweighing the costs at this point, it's going to be too expensive both socially and financially. It's not going to reap the benefits we all want."

Ferguson: "I am not in favor of expanding the runway. The Federal Aviation Administration determined the airport is safe. And I am of the conviction the airport should not have been constructed here on the island. I will always hold that view."

McCullough:"We need to take a look at the south end of the airport as opposed to the north end. If, for instance, there was a choice that came down between an impact on a church and on a local community, verses a mini-storage unit ... I would definitely vote in favor of the mini-storage unit. Whether that comes into play remains to be seen. But I would certainly vote in that direction."

Safay: "A small, 300-foot extension on the south end of the runway, coupled with the new technology of materials we are working with, and also -- unfortunately, but necessary -- the cutting of the trees at the north end of the runway - those three things will provide us with a safe environment for commercial airlines. That's my goal. I want to keep commercial airlines viable on Hilton Head Island."

Collett: "I'm with John (Safay), I think the important part is keeping commercial service. I've gone on record a number of times I'm not in favor of extending that runway one foot more than is absolutely necessary to keep commercial services. I have said I am in favor of extending it to 5,000 feet, but my mind is still open."

Q: What are the most pressing issues you as mayor will address over the next several years?

Collett: Find a way to attract people on their second and third careers, who can work anywhere near a computer, cell phone and airport where they can catch a commercial flight.

Laughlin: Secure the future of the Heritage golf tournament; maintain a resilient economy by refining town policies and ordinances that help island businesses; shore up money in the budget to account for an expected 20 to 30 percent fall in property tax collections due to lower assessments.

Myers: Use money earmarked for work at the airport to make repairs to bridges onto the island.

Ferguson: Make community viewpoints more inclusive in town decisions; create more public-private sector investment and programs to offset property taxes.

McCullough: Bring a business perspective to town hall and elect a mayor who knows how to promote the island.

Safay: Secure the future of the Heritage; have experience within town government to work with what will be a soon-to-be-curtailed town budget.