What can Hilton Head Island learn from Charleston’s rebirth?

The premise that Hilton Head Island may have something to learn from Charleston may initially seem outlandish.

Although Charleston and Hilton Head have fascinating histories dating back to the mid-1600s, Charleston has been a major seaport and trading center for hundreds of years. With the exception of its brief occupation by 50,000 Union troops, sympathizers and freed slaves during the Civil War, Hilton Head was an agrarian island used primarily for hunting, fishing and limited farming until the 1950s.

But when young Joseph P. Riley Jr. was sworn in as mayor in 1975, Charleston faced a problem similar to an issue Hilton Head Island faces today: How do you rejuvenate an aging city? For decades, Charleston had relied heavily on federal funds and businesses catering to the military, but after World War II that income source was declining. Infrastructure and many commercial and residential structures were deteriorating.  (A quick internet search will reveal photographs of the often shabby homes and buildings lining the city’s historic East Bay Street in the early 1970s.)  Charleston needed a visionary who could encourage renovation and stimulate new investment while preserving the city’s beauty. They found that visionary in Riley.

Pineapple FountainRiley recognized that for Charleston to prosper in the future, the status quo needed to be challenged and intelligent, controlled economic development had be a key element. That course met with significant resistance from some “preservationists” who wanted nothing to change — although that change was already occurring as a result of slow decay.

A plan was born to build a large hotel, commercial and conference facility on 5 acres on dilapidated King Street, in the heart of downtown Charleston. Almost 10 years and several lawsuits later, Charleston Place was opened at a cost of $75 million and Charleston’s rebirth was underway. Since 1986, the city government has taken a lead role in the rebirth of the waterfront, the rehabilitation of King and Calhoun streets, and the creation of new parks and public facilities, often using innovative public and private partnerships and city-funded infrastructure improvements that were repaid by property tax revenues from the increased value of the renovated areas.

Today, Hilton Head Island also needs some creative renovation and new investment. We owe a great debt to the Frasers, the scores of talented people who followed them to the Lowcountry, and the dedicated citizens who shared their vision of a well-planned, environmentally friendly community and translated many of their principles into municipal law after the incorporation of the Town of Hilton Head Island in 1983.

But Hilton Head Island is at a crossroads. Our identity as a first-class community is on the line, and bold action on the part of our town leaders is necessary. Our commercial infrastructure is wearing out. Many old residential and commercial structures do not meet current codes, but when owners want to make needed repairs or renovations, they often are stymied by a well-intentioned bureaucracy whose demands make those changes impractical.

Like Charleston, we need to invest in our “downtowns” — particularly the stretch of land from the Sea Pines Circle to Coligny Circle, the oldest of our commercial nodes and public beach accesses. We need to revise some development standards so that it is economically feasible to renovate or replace aging commercial buildings with sound structures that are aesthetically and environmentally pleasing. We need to use tax dollars for infrastructure improvements such as well-planned parking in the Coligny Beach area and the improved street systems proposed by the town’s Circle to Circle Committee.

Wise changes in development standards and selective public investment will lead to renovation and private investment and largely be self-funding as a result of increased property taxes on the enhanced value of the renovated or new facilities.

Reinvestment in infrastructure and the “bones” of Hilton Head Island is a key economic issue for those of us living on the island today, but the clock is ticking. Let’s get behind our town leaders and support them as they find a way forward.

Elihu Spencer is a local amateur economist with a long business history in global finance. His life work has been centered on understanding credit cycles and their impact on local economies. The information contained in this article has been obtained from sources considered reliable but the accuracy cannot be guaranteed.