Jay Wiendl, the general manager of the oceanfront Sonesta Resort on Hilton Head Island, said it best.
“The housekeepers are the heart of a resort’s staff.”
And that heart is getting harder to come by on Hilton Head.
For 60 years, Hilton Head has been a beacon of economic opportunity in a section of the Lowcountry that was crippled by poverty.
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But today that economy is spreading to the mainland. And a hot market throughout southern Beaufort County seems to be churning out multiple stores, restaurants and bars weekly, each of them desperate for labor.
As The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette peel back the layers of what island business leaders call a chronic worker shortage, we see transportation as a good place to start. We as a community can do more to help the workforce get to work — and especially those who are often overlooked, yet are doing jobs that some recognize as the heart of hospitality.
We are fortunate to be able to capitalize today on the vision of those who came before us. A public transportation system was established in 1978 by the state of South Carolina to serve this region. That was long before Hilton Head was hosting 2.5 million visitors a year. It was when Bluffton was a tiny village tucked back off the two-lane U.S. 278 winding through dark pine barrens.
Over the years, it has expanded. But its very existence has often been in doubt, and has always been a financial struggle. The old Lowcountry Regional Transportation Authority survived bankruptcy in 1988 to see a new day with the new Palmetto Breeze brand in 2007.
So what we have is a foundational building block for the Lowcountry economy, already up and running, the survivor of many storms.
This region needs to acknowledge its importance, commit to its economic well-being and find new ways to improve it for today’s new challenges.
It gets significant income from its riders. Fares can be as much as $8 per day round-trip for bus rides that can be 2 1/2 hours each way.
The federal government is a major contributor for a system now offering seven routes moving about 400 people to work and back each day in the peak tourism season.
The state kicks in, and so do the county governments in Beaufort, Jasper, Allendale, Hampton and Colleton counties. Years ago, the Town of Hilton Head Island balked at paying into the system because county taxes collected on the island were already allocated to it. Wisely, over the years that contribution has grown to $200,000 this year.
But to keep this system in place and enhance it to meet market demands, more can be done.
▪ More routes are needed. Today, the system serves only those working the day shift in a market that hums well into the night 365 days a year. Also, each destination, such as Allendale some 60 miles north of Hilton Head, is served by a single route each day. That means workers are often having to kill time before or after their work shifts.
▪ More buses are needed. Currently, some riders have to stand for a 2 1/2 hour commute.
▪ Better buses are needed. The fleet of older buses experienced 38 road calls for mechanical failure last fiscal year, costing both workers and employers.
▪ Employers need to help. Employers in general, and especially those benefiting from door-to-door service for its workforce, should be more involved in the success of the bus system. They pay for it indirectly through taxes, but should look for direct ways to keep this lifeline afloat. Too few employers even help their workers with the fares, something that could be done at least on a partial basis or offered as an incentive to keep good workers. Palmetto Breeze offers bus tickets in bulk to employers at reduced rates. At the very least, employers could take advantage of that and pass the savings on to the employees.
We must better capitalize on the regional transportation system in place. Making it more user-friendly and ensuring its expansion should be considered low-hanging fruit in addressing a chronic workforce shortage.
Nurturing this system has never been easy. But it has always gotten to the heart of the Lowcountry economy.