Sea Islands Institute Sustainability Research Initiative providing key ecological data
How do we keep the ecology that drew many of us to this nirvana while continuing to foster growth in the industry that is the financial backbone of the Lowcountry?
It’s a question that Charles Fraser kept at the heart of every decision he made as he worked to transform Hilton Head Island into a resort community beginning in 1955.
Nearly six decades later, the question is more relevant and vital to the region’s future as ever.
Professors and students at the University of South Carolina Beaufort are carrying on that legacy through their work.
“There’s a majority of folks who simply don’t know about our research,” said Dr. John Salazar, associate professor with the university’s Department of Hospitality Management. “Many folks think of USCB as the smaller two-year school it started as, but this is truly an example of the great steps we’ve made in making this a world-class institution. The key for us is to get the word out about the research.”
Since 2005, USCB faculty has received over $2.7 million in grant and contract funding, enough to fuel research on 49 projects. Nearly 70% of those projects are centered around sustaining the environment, economy and social well being.
The university has combined these efforts under one umbrella, the Sea Islands Institute Sustainability Research Initiative.
“So much of the economic, ecologic and cultural vitality of this region are intertwined, so it made perfect sense to create as open of an avenue for sharing this research and working hand-in-hand on projects as we could,” said Salazar, the director of the Lowcountry and Resort Islands Tourism Institute.
Salazar’s research focuses on destination management and marketing, resort HR management and festival and event management.
On the ecological side, USCB is studying dolphin abundance distribution in the May River, tracking fiddler crab larvae in local and inland coastal waters, how organisms react to rising sea levels.
“I’m not a tourism guy per se, but I’m interested in the ecology of the salt marshes,” said Dr. Joseph Staton, USCB professor of biology, who is working with Dr. Steve Borgianini on the fiddler crab research.
“We’re in the midst of a shift in the thinking here. Golf and tennis are important to folks, but folks are showing that the ecology around them is just as much of a draw. We’re trying to provide the data to get folks thinking more and more about the ecology.
"If you’re studying how to sustain and grow tourism dollars here and you’re not looking at the environmental component, you’re missing part of the picture.”
But equally important are the economic and sociological studies the university coordinates, such as its obesity analysis of Beaufort County's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, public transportation analysis and the economic impact of second homes on Hilton Head Island.
Salazar and his colleagues, including biology professor Dr. Eric Montie and environmental science professor Dr. Alan Warren, wanted to make sure this work and the findings weren’t living in a vacuum.
“You know, it’s not just one department, it’s multiple departments at the university making inroads toward sustainability,” he said. “And we know the more we work with leaders around the community, the more meaning the research will have. This history of advocacy and stewardship is not new here, but making sure the leaders are sharing information, that’s so key.”
So the group won a grant from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry and organized the first-ever Charles E. Fraser Sustainable Resort Development Conference, held May 6-7 dat Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head.
The confab featured panel presentations on water quality and land management; how to best practice sustainable tourism; the community balance between economy, social and environmental factors; and an update on the current state of tourism in the Lowcountry.
The event was attended by members of the Fraser family and more than 100 developers and key players in current and future resort development.
USCB professors were joined by representatives from groups such as the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, the RBC Heritage, the Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival and Concours d’Elegance, Visit Savannah, Telluride Ski and Golf, the Sonesta Resort, Sea Pines Resort and the Urban Land Institute.
Salazar said that the get-together sparked a conversation that continues today and hopes to make the conference a yearly event.
“We’re enthused for the future,” he said. “When folks are talking about next year already and the need for more breakout sessions, it tells me we hit a nerve.
“We wanted to spark that dialogue, not necessarily to come out of it with a laundry list of to-do items. More so to openly discuss the challenges in front of us.”
It also helped bring to light the multiple research avenues USCB is pursuing.
“It was funny but enlightening to hear developers and key players here say, 'I had no idea that you science guys were doing all that work,’ ” Salazar said.
The research continues daily on campus and around the community, as does the advocacy for responsible development.
“Folks move here, they want to replicate their experience from other places, build their McMansions,” Staton said. “Places like Bluffton, they’re still developing, there’s still time to proactively manage that sprawl, whereas Hilton Head is more of a retrofit. How do we grow in a small enough area without negatively impacting the environment? It’s the million dollar question that we’re trying to help answer.”
Warren said the thing that impresses him most about USCB is how it embraces that leadership and make sures its professors are practicing that stewardship.
“At a lot of universities, the research is purely theoretical,” Warren said. “Everything I heard at the conference and since, that’s applied research at its best, trying to solve real world problems. We can serve as that hub that integrates all the information.”
Montie, one of the newer members of the research team and to the area, said he’s impressed with what he has seen of the Lowcountry’s efforts thus far.
“I see places like Palmetto Bluff truly making an experience of the environment, preserving the area they develop, it’s exciting,” he said. “We’re here to do the science. We as academics often don’t know what that next step in applying the information is, but I’m seeing impressive outreach here. It’s exciting to be a part of.”