Mayor David Bennett: The state of Hilton Head Island

I am honored to present this annual community update for Hilton Head Monthly Magazine on behalf of our Town Council, which is comprised of unique individuals who have been working very hard representing a talented diversity of Islanders. 

Last December, Town Council came together along with town staff at a planning workshop that extended beyond its original schedule because of the magnitude of issues and opportunities faced by the Hilton Head Island community. During this workshop, Town Council developed the following top priorities:

  • Coligny Circle & Sea Pines Circle Area Plan
  • Arts and Culture Collaborative Study
  • USCB Campus Development
  • The Mitchelville Project
  • Sewer Service Availability
  • Vision & Master Plan for the Island

Other high priorities included:

  • Town-Owned Land Inventory & Direction
  • Economic Development Corporation Plans and Tools
  • Workforce Housing Policy & Tools
  • Community Organization Financial/Performance Oversight & Review
  • Comprehensive Town-wide Dredging Policy, Management, Direction

This was and remains a truly ambitious list of objectives, but I am very pleased with how the council members have moved forward to tackle them, one after another, in a determined, efficient manner.

To facilitate the advancement of these priorities effectively and to increase accountability and transparency within our town government, two new Town Council committees — the Finance & Administrative Committee and the Community Services Committee — were established with council members John McCann and Kim Likins, respectively, appointed as chairmen. In addition, the Circle-to-Circle Committee was formed and placed under the auspices of our Planning Commission, with councilman Tom Lennox serving as Town Council’s liaison.

The Finance & Administrative Committee has a number of responsibilities, including managing our balance sheet and reviewing and analyzing budgets and financial statements, all third-party vendor relationships, the accommodations tax application and vetting process and establishing goals for and reviewing the performance of the town manager and organizations that receive major tax dollars, specifically atax funding. Notably, this committee has already recommended several means of improving the atax process that have been adopted by the full council, and it has established a formal process for reviewing the performance of our town manager and set forth clear, quantifiable and measurable goals by which the town manager’s performance will be evaluated at the conclusion of this fiscal year. The committee also has taken a lead role in negotiating the town’s first contract with the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. This contract will help us ensure that public funds invested with the chamber are done so wisely and in full compliance with all applicable statutes.

The Community Services Committee has been asked to develop the full potential of Hilton Head’s arts and cultural organizations. It has also been tasked with identifying affordable and workforce housing opportunities.  While we expect to begin to address our community’s need for affordable housing in earnest this fall, Town Council has been hard at work on the arts initiative. In the spring, Town Council created a resolution to advance Hilton Head Island as a diverse arts and cultural destination that enriches the lives of our residents and guests. We know that Hilton Head has a great deal of arts, cultural and historical assets, and we want to make sure that we are maximizing their value to our community and visitors. We want Hilton Head Island to be recognized as a place where there is an array of arts and culture events and historical sites in addition to our expansive beaches, variety of sports and exquisite natural beauty. 

The Arts & Cultural Strategic Planning Committee was established to recommend the role that town government should play in supporting that vision. This nine-member citizen committee is comprised of individuals with diverse backgrounds who bring to bear a wealth of art and cultural education and experience. The committee was assigned four objectives:

  1. Recommend whether the economic impact of arts and cultural organizations is large enough for the town or other entities to increase support through various methods.
  2. Recommend if the town or other entities should play a role in furthering the collaborative efforts of arts and cultural organizations.
  3. Recommend what the arts and cultural community would look like in the year 2030 to help that community be as self-sustaining as possible.
  4. Recommend if the town or other entities should financially support the arts and cultural initiative and in what areas (facilities, programming or collaboration); and if so, how.

The committee designed a strategy for completing the scope of work that includes determining the community economic impact of the arts, researching the collaboration practices of other successful arts and cultural destinations, reaching out to a large and diverse Hilton Head constituency to determine their desires and ideas for future arts and cultural experiences, and determining the most impactful ways town funds can be used to support a rich and vibrant community.

We encourage everyone to become part of this important conversation. Arts & Strategic Planning Committee meetings are held at Town Hall weekly and include public presentations and public comment. The committee plans to make recommendations and develop possible actions to be taken by Town Council prior to our November Strategic Planning Workshop. 

The Circle to Circle Committee has been tasked with developing a vision and master plan as well as identifying current and future infrastructure needs for this critical sector of Hilton Head Island, which extends from the Cross Island Bridge to Sea Pines Circle and then Coligny Circle, including portions of the North and South Forest Beach areas as well as ancillary roadways that impact traffic flow.  A series of public forums were held throughout April and May seeking input from our citizens that will be used by committee members as they continue to develop a vision for this area. This committee, in conjunction with the Planning Commission, will also address the University of South Carolina Beaufort’s proposed Hilton Head campus.. Similar to the Community Services Committee, the Circle-to-Circle Committee has a significant citizen volunteer component.  I am very appreciative that many highly qualified Hilton Head residents have stepped forward to volunteer their time and talent to serve on these special committees.

Town Council and staff are firmly committed to these endeavors. As part of the Circle to Circle planning, I was pleased to announce recently the purchase by the town of four parcels of land totaling 4.3 acres along Palmetto Bay Road across from the Publix/Island Crossing parking lot. This was a strategic decision to control this acreage, which may well serve to be significant in improving the functionality of the Sea Pines Circle area from both a traffic and quality of life perspective.

I have also been pleased with the progress being made in providing sanitary sewer service to all residents who want it. In May, we held a well-attended "Sewer Summit" at Town Hall. Residents from all across the island heard from both Hilton Head Public Service District officials as well as an environmental expert from the University of South Carolina about the challenges that exist and the impacts on our environment associated with septic systems and soils in areas with high water tables, as is the case on Hilton Head. At the summit, Town Council voted unanimously, with one member absent, to direct staff to pursue a master plan to provide sanitary sewer access to everyone who desires it within five years.  Staff has been tasked with assessing the costs of the project, developing funding and policy recommendations that will be necessary to bring the project to fruition for council’s consideration, and diligently pursuing cost-efficient ways to pay for it including bonding, federal and state grants and shifting money within the town’s budget.

I can assure you that public health as well as the quality of our environment and local waters is a priority for Town Council. And, while we know the cost to bring sanitary sewer to the more than 900 island parcels that still don't have it is significant, it remains a priority nonetheless to make it happen.  As such, the town is proceeding with projects to sewer two of the 10 areas without sanitary sewer access over the next 12 months.  The Community Foundation of the Low Country is working with the town and Hilton Head Public Service District on this initiative by convening a special task force and mobilizing to enhance the funding of Project SAFE, which stands for Sewer Access for Everyone.  Project SAFE provides grants to owner-occupied households for use by the residents in paying sanitary sewer hook-up fees and associated costs. The foundation’s involvement will be integral to our community’s success in resolving this important issue.

On the topic of Mitchelville, it occurred to me that the best opportunity associated with heritage tourism in our community is not found solely within the story of Mitchelville.  Instead, the greater opportunity lays in telling the complete story of the rich history of Beaufort County, which includes the early Native Americans, Santa Elena, the discovery of Hilton Head by Capt. William Hilton, the Gullah, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, Mitchelville, Reconstruction and so on.  With the foregoing in mind, Beaufort County Councilman Stu Rodman, a couple of very capable islanders with in-depth knowledge of our rich history and I have convened the mayors of Bluffton, Beaufort and Port Royal along with the chairman of the Beaufort County Council to develop a collaborative, regional approach to telling this story. With the assistance of staffs from each area, potential sites have been identified for inclusion in the effort.  A special task force of citizens of Beaufort County will be populated in the weeks ahead and will conduct the mapping and assessment of these sites. In many instances, these citizens will be representatives of organizations such as Mitchelville, the Heritage Library and Coastal Discovery Museum.

Look for the visioning process to begin in earnest in early 2016. With the help of a few knowledgeable islanders, I have provided Town Council and staff with suggested consultants and a process that could be used as we bring our citizens together to forge a vision that we all can coalesce around and work toward. The council’s public planning sub-committee will vet these consultants and process beginning in September.

Just as important, our economy depends on retirees and we should have the welcome mat out for them. They offer a wealth of experience and wisdom, which I believe is an untapped resource for our future. But I understand their needs and desires in many instances are different from the often-discussed needs of tourists.  I envision certain areas of the island serving residents first and foremost, other areas emphasizing tourists’ needs and activities, while still others are bringing everyone together. To achieve this, we need an island-wide master plan that the community has helped create as well as strategies for realizing our preferred future.

With regard to our town's financial stability, it remains very strong, with the highest ratings from all major bond-rating agencies. The town has received an AAA rating from Moody's Investor Service, which represents the strongest creditworthiness a municipality can receive, and AA+ from both Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings, representing very strong creditworthiness. These ratings demonstrate the town's fiscal strength and translate into lower interest rates for town bonds. 

Last but not least, I would be remiss if I didn’t call to your attention two significant awards that I was pleased to accept on behalf of our community earlier this year.  First, we were recognized as one of the top 25 bicycle-friendly communities in America and one of only 21 nationwide to achieve “gold-level” status for its commitment to being bicycle-friendly. This is yet another example of a tremendous public-private partnership — this time between the Town of Hilton Head, the chamber of commerce and the Bicycle Advisory Committee. Second, the Municipal Association of South Carolina recognized the redevelopment of Shelter Cove Towne Centre as the No. 1 economic development project in the state of South Carolina. Congratulations to all those who played a role in these outstanding achievements.

In closing, I want to express my personal thanks for the helpful feedback I receive on an almost daily basis from our residents. Town Council takes every email and letter seriously, and we appreciate it when residents and business owners take the time to reach out and provide us with helpful information, ask questions or give us their thoughts on an issue. We represent each of you, and we always want to know what you think.

David Bennett is mayor of the Town of Hilton Head Island.