Q&A with Hilton Head town manager Steve Riley

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Hilton Head Island may be only 12 miles long and 5 miles wide, but the 2.5 million visitors that the intimate subtropical locale attracts annually enjoy miles of award-winning beaches, more than 100 miles of scenic leisure paths, 24 world-class golf courses, 350 tennis courts, more than 250 restaurants, numerous outdoor activities, noteworthy cultural offerings, a large number of shopping experiences and more. Most, if not all, will agree that Hilton Head is among the most family-friendly and popular vacation destinations in the world. 

Many also believe that Hilton Head offers quality health care facilities, expansive educational and philanthropic opportunities, and a strong business community. As a result, many who were once visitors have decided to call the island home and, today, Hilton Head boasts about 40,000 residents.

However, when it comes to attracting businesses and growing the economy, Hilton Head is not without its challenges. Few know more about this than town manager Steve Riley, who has resided on the island for decades and has served the Town of Hilton Head Island since 1991. Monthly sat down with Riley to discuss the Island’s business and economic development, including birds, beaches, buildings and more.    

Question: You’ve been on the Island and serving the town for a long time. How are things going?

Answer: Yes, I have been here for a long time and initially served the town as the community development director. I became town manager in 1994, and things have changed quite a bit since then. Things are still pretty good, but we are facing some challenges.

Q: Is this why the town established the Hilton Head Island Economic Development Corporation?

A: The main goal of the Hilton Head Island Town Council is to deepen, grow and diversify the Town’s economy. We established the Hilton Head Island Economic Development Corporation in 2013 to assist with retaining and expanding existing businesses, and also to help attract new business to the Island. We also created the Circle to Circle Committee to develop a vision and a master plan, with community input, for the future of the area from the Coligny Circle to the Sea Pines Circle.

Q: What are some of your specific goals and plans?

A: In the short term, two to five years, we have the University of South Carolina Beaufort initiative on Hilton Head — our campus location is locked in, a build-out of the sewer system on the north end — we want to offer access to those who want it, and our next big beach renourishment project.

Q: What challenges are you facing?

A: Well, let’s take the beach renourishment, for example. Costs around the country have increased dramatically and there are new federal restrictions regarding this bird, the piping plover, and its season of protection. It’s a wintering bird, which pushes us away from a wintertime project to a summertime project, which then falls during the busy season. We can’t just nourish and stop, and then start back up. Also, everyone loves the beaches, and most people understand the need to renourish, but not everyone wants the dredging to take place in their backyard. We also have a challenging situation with office space and buildings. Some of the buildings on the island should be condemned and need to be torn down. Many of the condos here need to be renovated. Some of them are 800 square feet with 8-foot ceilings and are very dated. People don’t want to stay in a place like that. You could create incentives to renovate, but who can afford to do so? These are just some of the challenges we are working to address.

Q: What is your biggest challenge?

A: Our biggest challenge is paying for stuff — for new stuff and for maintenance of existing stuff. Our long-term goal is figuring out how to broaden our economy and finance everything we need and want to do. We have a public meeting calendar, openings on our boards and committees, and a lot of information on our website. We welcome anyone who wants to share their ideas and wants to help make a difference.

For additional information regarding the Town of Hilton Head Island and its collaborative efforts with the Hilton Head Island Economic Development Corporation, please visit hiltonheadislandsc.gov or hhiedc.com. The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce also offers economic and business metrics for Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and Beaufort County, which can be found online at ThinkHiltonHeadIsland.org