Development after development, from Sea Pines to Palmetto Bluff, Tommy Baysden helps keep Lowcountry’s natural beauty a central focus
Tommy Baysden was one of the lucky young MBA graduates who landed a job with Charles Fraser and helped turn Sea Pines into one of the most nature-embracing developments on the East Coast.
“My wife Cindy and I moved here from North Carolina in 1971 to Harbour Town. We were one of the first people to get mail. It was amazingly wild at the time. It was basically a wilderness then. Hilton Head was and is a natural paradise.”
Cindy Baysden, also a Rocky Mount, N.C., native and UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, said, “When Tommy first heard about the job, I thought, ‘Hilton Head? Where’s that?’ We were headed to Chicago or New York. Once we arrived, we soon realized how lucky we were to be there.”
Baysden was hired to help market Sea Pines, but in those days everyone did whatever needed to be done.
“I gravitated toward the natural side of it," said Baysden, who is a passionate duck hunter.
He eventually became a vice president for the Sea Pines Company, helping the company develop Sea Pines, Amelia Island in Florida, River Hills in North Carolina and a resort in Puerto Rico, where the Baysdens lived for two years.
But the 1970s recession took its toll on the Sea Pines Company and they returned to North Carolina, where Tommy pursued opportunities in retail and other ventures.
“It was an amazing group of people. We called it Camelot,” Tommy said. Sea Pines alumni went on to establish Aspen, Snowmass, and Disney World. “It’s an amazing network of people," he said.
Beaufort County again, but for good
In 1989, that Sea Pines network kicked in and Baysden was tapped to help market Spring Island.
The 3,000-acre island served as a trading post in the 1700s, a cotton plantation before the Civil War and a renowned quail hunting preserve in the early 20th century.
In the 1980s, the new owners proposed an extremely low density development that preserved the island’s natural beauty, its history and offered inspiration for artists.
When Baysden arrived, there were few buildings on the island. “There were only five of us living on the island,” he said.
As prospective investors came to take a look around, the group highlighted the island’s attributes. “The only way to entertain them was to take them quail hunting and horseback riding and feed them shrimp and crabs,” he said.
Spring Island allowed only 410 homes, set aside 1,000 acres as a nature preserve and set up a trust fund for a nature center staffed with full-time naturalists.
Once that development got under way, Tommy moved on.
“I joke that every time a place gets a little civilization, they move me," he said.
One of his next projects was a property owned by Crescent Resources on the banks of the Okatie River.
Looking at old maps, the developers noticed that an open area was simply identified as “old field" and its name was born: Oldfield Club.
“We took note of the fact that thousands of people were moving here because of the natural beauty, then get stuck in a cul-de-sac and never see the water. At Oldfield, we teach people how to do that. The access to those activities drew them, but they didn’t know how to do them. We teach them,” Baysden said.
A central feature of the community is the nature center so people can learn how to fish, kayak, horseback ride and bird watch.
“It was very exciting to visualize that nature center. I gravitated to that role because I was interested in it. I didn’t spend a lot of time designing golf courses. Of all the facilities, I’ve been involved, that one worked out like it was planned.”
A new blueprint for development
Working with the same company, Baysden moved on to his next adventure, Palmetto Bluff.
While his duck hunting on the now-populous Hilton Head were just a memory, hunting is still possible on parts of Palmetto Bluff’s sprawling 23,000 acres on the May River.
“It was one of the great hunting plantations on the East Coast," he said.
Even in the 1930s, Union Bag realized the property’s grandeur when the paper company first scouted the property for timber to fuel its Savannah plant. They set up a land use plan and carefully managed the property, and set aside areas to hunt and shoot skeet.
“The old lodge was magnificent,” Baysden said. “But it was sitting on very valuable piece of land. We tore it down.”
Palmetto Bluff is now one of the South’s premier destinations, primarily because of its laser focus on its natural surroundings.
A Lowcountry life
Both Baysdens pursued careers that focused on natural wonders. Cindy was the first director of the Open Land Trust of Beaufort County and recently returned to that role.
Tommy is working on a project in the Ozarks with the founder of Bass Pro Shops that highlights the out-of-doors.
“Once you’ve worked for developers who do care, you don’t go backward on that,” Cindy said of Tommy. “He just adores the outdoors. He’s a birder. He loves to fish. He has a great appreciation for this landscape.”
As Tommy Baysden said, “I have had a charmed existence in the Lowcountry. It’s been great. I started with the best and every place I’ve been, they had the same mindset. This coastal stretch from Georgetown to Savannah, it is beauty central with all of the islands and marshes. Have you noticed the light this time of year? It’s like an impressionist painting.”
And thanks to Tommy and Cindy’s work, we live right in the middle of it.