Hilton Head’s new mayor wants to be out among the people

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PHOTO SPECIAL TO MONTHLY

Hilton Head Island residents shouldn’t spend too much time looking for new Mayor John McCann at Town Hall. His sparse office, dominated by a meeting table and the emblem of his beloved New York Yankees emblazoned on the wall, signals that the mayor does not plan to spend much time there.

“I’ve only used this office twice in two months,” McCann, 78, said recently. “I want to be out there as much as I can.”

And being out among the people during his campaign is where McCann said he heard what town residents wanted, listing workforce housing and transportation, health care, and parks as key issues to be addressed over the next four years.  

“The visioning plan, as well done as it was, didn’t address certain issues,” McCann said about the town’s “Our Future Vision and Strategic Action Plan” released last May. “It didn’t address health care; it didn’t dig far enough into workforce housing. We have to correct that.”

McCann would like to see vacant commercial real estate — about 44 percent of the island’s commercial space is empty — repurposed for workforce housing.  But he has a caveat: Housing and transportation are inseparable.

“You can never build enough housing here to satisfy all of our needs,” he said. “So when you look at it, the No. 1 driver is transportation.”

Workers from Hardeeville and Ridgeland need transportation that is fast, comfortable and flexible enough so that people can go home during the day and not be locked into specific time such as “6 in the morning and 6 in the evening,” he said.

Also on McCann’s agenda is a master plan for town parks. Some are at least 25 years old, and maintenance, which is done by the county, isn’t where it should be, he said.  A newly formed committee is tasked with assessing the parks and looking at their best use, now and into the future.

Health care was not originally on his list of priorities, McCann said. But during meet-and-greets he kept hearing concerns about the subject.

“I think we have to explore the health care here and see what we have now and what the needs are and where we are going to go in the future,” he said. ‘Part of that is telecommunications. We need 5G (mobile broadband).”

One of the biggest projects that will consume McCann’s time as mayor are the upcoming improvements to U.S. 278 and the bridges to Hilton Head, made possible in November when voters approved a temporary 1 percent sales tax increase. The project’s goal is to ease traffic congestion between the mainland and Hilton Head. Bridges to the island will be replaced or repaired, and lanes on U.S. 278 will be expanded from Moss Creek Drive in Bluffton to Squire Pope Road on the island.

An 11-member corridor committee has been formed to look out for the town’s interests in this project. The main goal, according to McCann, is to discuss options with the people who live along the corridor. Those residents, many of them native islanders, have expressed concerns about losing more land to development.

“What I’m trying to do, and what the town is trying to do over the next year or two, is try to have this all worked out,” he said. “This should all be done in the next 12 to 14 months, before they put a shovel in the ground.”

Other issues touched on by the mayor included traffic safety and environmental sustainability. Several high-profile traffic fatalities on U.S. 278 on Hilton Head have left residents concerned about the safety of pedestrians and cyclists along the busy road. McCann said traffic lights have been approved at the intersection of U.S. 278 and Yacht Cove, where 11-year-old Charli Bobinchuck was struck and killed by a car last summer. If the Yacht Cove lighting proves successful, he said, other dangerous crosswalks could see changes. He also said that the town is experimenting with narrowing the lanes on Pope Avenue to help force drivers to slow down.

Environmental sustainability was listed as a top value in the town’s vision plan. McCann said the town would continue adding sewers on the island’s north end and work with the county on recycling. “Environment stretches to water quality, beaches … you don’t want to talk about 1,000 projects,” he cautioned. “You want to talk about one or two that you can touch.”

And McCann, who has lived on the island since 2003, said he wants to continue hearing from residents. Council meeting are being held at various places around the island, and McCann is continuing to hold meet-and-greets — 12 a year, he said.

“This island, it is not the beaches or the tennis courts,” he said. “It is the people that live here.”