Transforming an Island Institution



If you grew up on Hilton Head Island — or if your kids grew up here — it’s a good bet you have been one of the hundreds of thousands of residents who have benefitted from programs at the Island Recreation Center.

Forty years ago, as more people moved to the island and it began to be known as a resort destination, town leaders realized that developing a parks and recreation program was essential to building a vital and healthy community. And so the Hilton Head Island Recreation Association was born.

The nonprofit group began coordinating programs to benefit residents, first at the Island Youth Center and then, for the past 30 years, at the Island Recreation Center. The center has consistently expanded its programs to keep pace with the area population and the latest trends. But even as the program has grown to serve 240,000 participant visits a year, the venerable core of its facilities — the Rec Center building on Wilborn Road — has remained much the same. But that is about to change in a big way.

The town is funding a $13 million bond to both renovate the current 14,000-squarefoot building and add an additional 22,000-square-foot building. The antiquated gym and pool will morph into a state-of-the-art community center.

Construction is underway now on the building, with the pool renovations planned for a future phase.

“It has been 12 years in the making and a lot of work and a lot of partnerships formed, but to see structures going up, it’s all worth it,” said Island Rec executive director Frank Soule, who has seen the full lifecycle of the current center. He was hired to help start the Rec Center in 1986 and has seen the Lowcountry’s population grow from 17,000 residents in the early days to more than 40,000 today.

Soule also was part of a team that toured other rec centers with an eye to incorporating their ideas into the Hilton Head remodeling project.

“We’ve created spaces and plans that meet and exceed the needs of our full population,” Soule said. “That’s something as hard as we worked, I couldn’t say before.”

The scope of the construction project is large. Remodeling includes improving the afterschool and Discover Club areas, a new gym floor, bleachers, new HVAC and new lighting. The new building will house a second gym, a walking deck with cardio equipment, several exercise rooms on two floors and a community meeting space. And for the first time, the pool area will have restrooms and changing rooms on the pool deck.

Part of the project also benefits the adjacent Hilton Head Island High School. The Island Rec Association is installing new lighting at a multipurpose athletic field. The school’s tennis courts will be relocated to allow for more parking, but the new courts behind the rec center will be installed with lighting, a huge plus for the local tennis community.

The association’s community efforts go far beyond its center’s walls. The group sponsors 11 annual festivals that have raised more $240,000 for scholarships that allow children from lowincome families to participate in afterschool programs, summer camps and other programs.

For years, the center’s ever-growing children’s and family programs and the 600-member Senior Center found a way to take turns in cramped quarters, but the new facility will allow programs for all ages to be run simultaneously.

“We have had a group of seniors that come to play basketball at 11 a.m. every day. It became a social event for them. But during summer camp, we always had to shut the gym down. Now we will serve both,” Soule said. “These new spaces serve so many more needs and make us a true community center. The mom who drops her kid off for swim lessons can walk the indoor track or do some cardio while she waits.”

Since construction started in March, the Island Rec Association’s administrative offices have been housed in a temporary trailer. Summer camps are being run at Hilton Head Island International Baccalaureate Elementary School, as will afterschool programs in the fall.


Recreation Association

Rendering courtesy of The Island Recreation Association

Construction is well underway on the expansion of the old building, slated for a late fall 2017 opening. The new addition is scheduled to open in 2018. To prepare for that opening, Island Rec has partnered with another nonprofit group, People for Parks, to help raise $1.2 million to buy equipment, furniture and fixtures. People for Parks has successfully raised money for facelifts at Chaplin, Bristol and Crossings parks.

The groups kicked off their Equip to Fit fundraising campaign on June 21 with an open house and tour of the Island Rec Center construction site. The campaign’s coffers got a major boost with a $50,000 donation from the David M. Carmines Foundation, with whom the Island Rec Association puts on Hilton Head’s annual Seafood Festival.

“The Rec Center benefits, in some way, every member of the community,” said Andrew Carmines, foundation founder, Seafood Festival host and Hudson’s Seafood On the Docks owner. The foundation has been a major Island Rec supporter for decades.

Equip to Fit welcomes donation of any size, but also is offering naming rights to larger donors. Donors can sponsor an office or storage area for $2,500, the entire walking track and exercise areas for a couple more zeroes ($250,000), and many other items. Organizers of the fundraiser hope everything from the pickleball courts to afterschool and summer camp classrooms will have dedicated nameplates.


To make a donation to the Island Rec Center, call 843-681-7273, email or go to