The Economy is All of Us


It might seem strange, this is a column dedicated to the economy and financial issues facing the Lowcountry, to focus this month on Hilton Head Island’s mayoral election. Elections matter and, while federal elections generate all the excitement, local elections can have a much greater impact on our everyday lives.

Let me start with an overview of what drives our local economy. Since the time of Charles Fraser and the development of Sea Pines, the base of Hilton Head’s economy has been — and likely always will be — tourism. There are very few of us who didn’t first come here as a visitor. In the 1960s, the Sea Pines Company was one of our nation’s most respected real estate development firms. Fraser attracted straight-A students from some of our finest universities to help him turn a swampy coastal island into a tourist destination. His vision of commercial and residential development in concert with and respect for the environment is now time-tested and has been repeatedly copied globally. I think most of us believe that the Fraser experiment in land development has served us well.

In the years since the founding of the Sea Pines Company, Hilton Head has grown from a few hundred folks outnumbered by alligators and snakes into a community of more than 40,000 full-time residents and more than 2.6 million visitors every year. We have jet service to our local airport, 24 golf courses, 300 tennis courts, 12 miles of beautiful beaches, over 250 restaurants offering a full range of culinary experiences, and well over 200 more retail stores — from major retailers to specialty shops. Finally, we boast accommodation options including more than 6,000 villas, 3,000 hotel rooms, 1,000 timeshare units and two RV resorts.

Over the past 60-odd years, both gated communities and traditional real estate developments have been constructed mostly along the lines envisioned by Fraser, not straying too far from the idea that development can co-exist with the environment. But we live in a climate that is harsh on building materials, and we are seeing the impact of climate change and its impact on flooding. Something must be done to revitalize our commercial buildings and residential housing stock if we are to remain a first-class community.


In November, we will have the opportunity to elect a new town leader who will set our community agenda for the next decade. Clearly, we are facing some significant challenges around traffic congestion, the future of commercial and residential development, workforce housing, how our island is marketed and generally how we proceed after the recent Town Visionary Project.

We currently have seven individuals vying for the job of mayor and, with a field that large, it’s likely we’ll have two chances to vote for the future of Hilton Head — the general election probably will be followed by run-off.

But instead of endorsing a candidate — or even mentioning any of them by name — I’m going to identify traits Hilton Head might benefit from in a mayor.


First and foremost, we need a natural leader who can bring Hilton Head Town Council together, understanding that diversity of culture in our community is a strength, not a drawback. Native islanders, commercial interests, visitors and “come froms” are all critical to who we are and why we are here. We need someone who understands that we are better than “demolishing the bridge” to our island and instead finds new ways to bring both residents and visitors to Hilton Head with less congestion on our roads. Our next mayor needs to be fully committed to our community, not promoting causes that are beyond our borders. Hate has no place on Hilton Head Island as it will drive a stake in the heart of our community. The mayor has to be able to articulate a “big vision” for our town and, equally important, be able to rally the community, as a whole, around that vision.

Hilton Head Island is at a crossroads from an economic standpoint. Elections matter, and some elections matter more than others. Vote wisely.

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.