New mayor, council should hit ground running

Congratulations to Drew Laughlin, Hilton Head Island's mayor-elect, and to the new and returning council members.

This election energized the community in ways not seen for many years. It seems only yesterday, we were lamenting the lack of candidates and the lack of voter interest in town elections.

That concern looks to be a thing of the past, and it can be attributed in part to the decision to switch Town Council elections to general election years. Certainly, the 49 percent voter turnout on Hilton Head benefited from the keen interest in state and congressional elections. But Tuesday's runoff between Laughlin and Tom Crews drew an impressive 32 percent of registered voters.

We also anticipate a competitive run in a special election this March for the Ward 3 seat that will be vacant when Laughlin is sworn in as mayor at the Dec. 7 council meeting. Already, Beaufort County Councilman Steve Baer has announced he will run.

The newly constituted council will get to work quickly, with its annual goal-setting retreat starting just two days after members are sworn in. They must set aside campaign rhetoric and get to the real work of charting a course for Hilton Head. High on that list of goals will be revising the Land Management Ordinance even more to encourage redevelopment and make the town more "business friendly." That was a common theme of this election.

But it must be done in a way that preserves what sets apart Hilton Head. Governing Hilton Head, with its mix of retirees and tourism, real estate and other business interests, has long required careful calibration, and nothing -- not even the Great Recession -- has changed that. Swing too far one way or the other and the community as a whole suffers.

The town will be looking for ways to spark redevelopment and new enterprise, but it also will be doing it in the context of tighter budgets. Officials will have to weigh carefully what role they should play -- or can afford to play -- in private business development.

Laughlin cited the financial outlook as one of the top issues facing the town. Property values will probably go down in the coming 2012 reassessment, as much as 30 percent, he predicts. Business license, real estate transfer fee, accommodations and hospitality tax collections all have been affected by the economic downturn.

None of this will be easy, but these folks volunteered for the job, and do it they must. It calls for ingenuity, enterprise, thoughtfulness and respect for what makes Hilton Head special. It requires listening, as well as acting.

We wish them well.