Taking care of business: Mayor Laughlin proposes new ideas for economic development

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Question 1: You are interested in opening a business on Hilton Head Island. Where do you go for up-to-date information about doing business here?

Question 2: You already have commercial property here and are looking for opportunities to redevelop it. Where do you go for that?

You may not like either answer.

“There really isn’t any place to go,” Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin said. “You’ve got the Chamber (of Commerce) but their focus tends to be on short-term vacation tourism and current event marketing. The Town (of Hilton Head) devotes a good bit of time to it, but there is a need for an entity dedicated to attracting business and possessing strong business skills and experience to work with business prospects. We need to think long-term about what our visitors and residents of the future will want and what sectors of private business might be attracted to Hilton Head Island.”

The plan for that entity is an island-specific economic development corporation.

A four-person committee, appointed by Town Council, has issued a report recommending the formation of a nonprofit corporation with a full-time executive director. It will be governed by a volunteer board of experienced business executives.

According to Laughlin, the corporation’s mission will be to encourage, develop and enhance local economic redevelopment required to sustain the quality of life on Hilton Head Island over the long term by coordinating economic regeneration under a singularly focused entity. It will be governed by volunteers with strong business skills and supported by the town.

“I expect the Town Council will take that up here very shortly,” Laughlin said. “We need to be more active in terms of economic development and redevelopment.”

Local economic trouble surfaced during the 2008 global recession.

Around 70 percent of gross retail spending on the island was generated by tourism. As the number of tourists dropped, the local economy suffered. The tourists have started to return but the lesson has been learned.

Hilton Head’s economy needs to be less dependent on tourism.

The economic development corporation will take a lead role in managing and dealing with current and prospective business owners.

“It will be a one-stop shop for business interested in growing or coming to Hilton Head,” Laughlin said. “It will also help us conduct basic market research – allowing us to understand what the trends are and what target segments we need to focus on.”

The corporation will not replace ongoing efforts by the Lowcountry Economic Alliance to promote regional economic growth. It will complement that organization with a focus on Hilton Head Island.

The committee that recommended the corporation consisted of established businessmen Peter Parrott, Richard Cyr, Jim Gant and Tom Lennox. Others such as Terry Ennis, John Salazar and Shawn Colin also worked closely on the project. Bill Harkins served as the council’s non-voting liaison to the committee.

“I think business prospects want to work with business people more and less with government officials,” Laughlin said. “This would differ significantly from what we’ve done. It’s very important.”