Q&A with HHIEDC executive director Don Kirkman

For many, the only thing better than vacationing in a top travel destination, such as Hilton Head Island, is being able to call that paradise one’s home and place of business.

However, while Hilton Head offers countless amenities that appeal to both visitors and residents, including beautiful beaches, a pleasant climate, countless cultural and culinary offerings, and beyond, maintaining and attracting businesses requires much more than award-winning aesthetics and attractions.

Few know about this better than Don Kirkman, executive director of the Hilton Head Island Economic Development Corporation. Kirkman, who joined the group in August 2014, brings years of experience and expertise to his role. Monthly sat down to speak with the North Carolina native about his first year on the job and the economic group’s priorities, challenges and goals.  

Question: What is your background and how do you feel it makes you well-suited for or qualified to help lead Hilton Head’s economic growth and development?

Answer: I have been an economic development practitioner for 25 years. I was an attorney for 10 years in Morehead, North Carolina, and during that time I began volunteering for the Carteret County Economic Development Council. In 1990, I applied for the director position and held it for 10 years. Then I spent 10 years as the CEO/president of the Piedmont/Triad Partnership, a 12-county regional economic development organization. After that, I was hired by Florida’s Great Northwest, a 16-county regional economic development organization, to serve as its president. In 2012, I returned to North Carolina and started my own economic development consulting practice. I closed that practice when I was hired to serve as the first executive director of Hilton Head’s EDC in 2014, and I am a certified economic developer.

Q: What is your mission with the EDC?

A: The EDC has articulated a mission to make Hilton Head Island more than a leisure community — with greater housing opportunities, educational opportunities, etc. — with the attributes of a mid-sized city. We don’t want to do anything to dilute the Hilton Head brand.

Q: What are the EDC’s goals?

A: The EDC was incorporated by the Town of Hilton Head Island in June 2013, and we work closely to help deepen, diversify and grow the economy of the town. We have four main goals.

Our first is to identify barriers to new business attraction and existing business retention and expansion on Hilton Head Island and to provide recommendations. Our second goal is to support an entrepreneurial ecosystem that encourages new business formation and existing business retention and expansion.Goal three is to retain and expand existing Hilton Head businesses, and our fourth goal is to attract new businesses to the island.

Q: What challenges do you face?

A: As the island has matured, development has dried up and we are coming off of a recession. Our economy is also very tied to tourism and hospitality, instead of being diversified. From 1990-2000, our tax base and revenue nearly doubled. From 2010 until now, things have been stagnant.

Q: What are your strategies for overcoming these challenges and accomplishing your goals?

A: Town Council and the EDC agree that we need to diversify and not be so reliant upon tourism and hospitality. During the past year, the EDC requested proposals for and enacted a Second Homeowner Outreach Strategy to get input from non-resident property owners, we have created an aviation action plan, we have surveyed existing businesses and have a new board of directors with very skilled locals representing various industries. The board governs the EDC and Hilton Head’s town manager, Steve Riley, serves as a non-voting, ex officio member. These are just a few of our strategies. We encourage folks to share their thoughts, participate in our meetings and help spread the word that “Life is Good on the Island.”

Kirkman believes that he and the HHIEDC have made great progress during the past year, but agrees that there is still much work to be done. He encourages those who are passionate about Hilton Head and its future to get involved with the group.

For additional information regarding the advantages of locating your business on Hilton Head Island and the Hilton Head Island Economic Development Corporation, including its many services and resources, call 843-686-0868 or visit www.hhiedc.com. You can also subscribe to receive news and event information.