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The State of Hilton Head Island

mayor bennetGreetings Hilton Head Monthly Readers!

As mayor of the Town of Hilton Head Island, I am pleased to report to you that your elected officials have established important priorities, put people in place to pursue them and made substantial progress in achieving them. Late in 2015, Hilton Head Island Town Council’s new planning workshop process yielded this ambitious list of 2016 objectives: producing strategic arts, historical and cultural planning initiatives, providing sanitary sewer to un-served island properties, analyzing and planning an actionable vision for the “Circle to Circle” corridor, determining town-funded economic development opportunities, and developing a comprehensive, long-range vision for Hilton Head Island.

I am continually grateful for the way my colleagues and, indeed, many of you who share a passion for making our community the best it can be, have joined together and moved forward to tackle each priority, one after another. In fact, it is your continued support and participation, coordinating with devoted civil servants, a dedicated town staff and deliberately selected professional organizations, that will be essential if we are to achieve these goals. While space doesn’t permit me to comprehensively brief you on all of these items, I would like to highlight points that I believe are especially important.

Sanitary Sewer

After more than 25 years since it was originally advocated by Hilton Head Island's second mayor, Martha Baumberger, our key priority of providing a universally safe sewer system is at last proving to be a notable achievement. This is surely a most timely protection for our sensitive environment, although there are others we must pursue in the future as stewards of this incredible habitat.

The Hilton Head Public Service District, citizen volunteers and the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry have partnered with the town in this most consequential endeavor. I’m especially thankful that the foundation has already committed $500,000 of its $3 million fundraising goal for Project SAFE (Sewer Access for Everyone). Project SAFE will provide grants to low- to moderate-income homeowners to cover sewer connection costs. Citizens, I urge you to consider making a donation to Community Foundation of the Lowcountry for this most worthy cause. Easements necessary to permit the installation of improvements have been secured in a number of targeted neighborhoods. Hilton Head Public Service District anticipates seeking construction bids in the next few weeks for projects located within two sizable neighborhoods that currently lack service. Within the next four years, properties that have been negatively affected for decades will receive the improvements advocates have long championed.

Coligny and the Circle-to-Circle Corridor

The south end of our island continues to captivate full-time residents, snowbirds, sports enthusiasts, artists, businesses, vacationers and day-trippers. Here, another long-awaited development project is making major strides forward.  Construction is scheduled to begin this month on phase two of the Coligny Redevelopment, one of the pinnacles of which is a destination park truly reflecting the unique culture and heritage of our community, with its performance pavilion, perimeter trails and exercise stations. The Lowcountry nature-themed adventure playground will feature a prodigious play structure based on Capt. William Hilton’s ship, Adventure. The Sandbox: An Interactive Children's Museum and critical roadway improvements are included in the scope of construction. All who enjoy Coligny should anticipate completion of these improvements in approximately 14 months.

Meanwhile, the citizen-based Circle to Circle Committee recently concluded its 18-month study of the area between Sea Pines and Coligny circles and recommended a vision plan for this dynamic corridor and strategies for realizing it. I admire the style of process employed for this initiative because our citizens led it, community input was actively sought, obtained, considered and included, expert analysis was engaged when necessary and the entire undertaking was thorough. Ultimately a vision was produced that places the appropriate emphasis on maintaining and expressing the unique character and culture of the area. This lifestyle is reflected in the report by proposals addressing the way people circulate and interact with others and the environment. By now, Town Council is considering a myriad of strategies. Parking — including fees and the seasonal lease of current, privately owned spaces — a trolley system, infrastructure upgrades and additions, methods to enhance communication with visitors and an area master plan are all being vetted. I anticipate that the chosen strategies will help ameliorate congested traffic along Pope Avenue and elsewhere within the Coligny vicinity as a result of the volunteer efforts of this fine committee.

Arts and Cultural Planning

Town Council’s Arts & Cultural Planning initiative seeks to further develop a rich and harmonious expression of our island by identifying opportunities to reach all of our citizens and visitors with our unique and diverse arts, cultural, historical and entertainment resources. This action was birthed by the 2015 town-appointed, citizen-led Arts & Cultural Strategic Planning Committee, which confirmed that cultural and arts activities on Hilton Head Island are a substantial contributor to our quality of life as well as a strong current and potential economic generator for our community. Research by the committee noted that venue concerns have long challenged many of the nearly 70 for-profit and nonprofit businesses and organizations, which faithfully and tirelessly support, serve and operate island historical, cultural and arts programs. Town Council decided to investigate whether our community may be missing opportunities to tell our own stories and protect and promote our own legacy by answering the question of whether a new, innovative venue (or venues) could reinforce this effort. An all-volunteer Venue Committee, comprised of highly experienced individuals, several with backgrounds in art, culture and history, has been established and will be supported by a group of research professionals who will provide detailed data and unbiased evaluations of the information needed to help form final recommendations. A detailed and defined scope of work has been developed and a final report will be delivered to Town Council by year’s end.  Here again, citizens, civil servants, community-based businesses and hired professionals will advance the effort to yield the very best solution for our community.  Additionally, I expect this initiative to have an incredible, positive impact on our appreciation for the place we call home.

Vision and Master Planning for Hilton Head Island

Environmental stewardship. Thoughtful planning.  Superb quality of life. These are core values of our community, showcased in each of the above-described initiatives, and are, in effect, smaller-scale visioning processes. While these individual measures are important in their own right, Town Council believes there is great benefit to our collective participation in a community-wide visioning effort.  We are convinced this represents the best method for us to determine exactly what our town values, and as a follow-up, what our priorities should be for the coming years in order to affirm and express these principles for generations to come. Indeed, many of you have participated in the aforementioned initiatives and are able to see the fruits of your efforts. Many of you participated in one of the numerous community forums and public meetings that were held in the spring of this year, which were led by Steven Ames, a nationally renowned visioning expert who has worked with other communities that value their unique identities.

Building upon the excitement surrounding these forums, Town Council has been hard at work during the past nine months, creating a visioning process that will fully engage our citizens and again employ that familiar model of citizens, civil servants, community businesses and hired professional experts working together for the good and the advancement of our community. Look for citizen-based Project Management and Vision Teams to be seated in the next 60 days in conjunction with the formal interviewing for a high-caliber consultant to assist us in our efforts to be faithful stewards and planners. 

Certainly, many challenges lie ahead for our community. Our residents desire a distinct quality of life.  Our local businesses want qualified workers in order to best serve the demands of citizens and visitors. Reliable, affordable and pleasant transportation options, proper utilization of the University of South Carolina Beaufort campus, the redevelopment and/or repurposing of our aging commercial real estate stock in our community’s core, enhancing our telecommunications infrastructure, and preserving our rich Gullah heritage are among the many opportunities we must face. It is mysincere hope and belief that, with your participation as well as that of your neighbors, we can forge a vision that will serve as a guide for our decision-making, planning and finances, as we work hard to resolve to do better for ourselves and our posterity. Again, I say, imagine what our preferred future could be if 40,000 genuinely interested and highly capable individuals are all working together in unison and harmony toward collective goals!

Financial Strength

While these initiatives and others (our recent beach renourishment) aren’t without cost, I am pleased to report that our town's financial stability remains very strong, with the highest ratings from all major bond-rating agencies. The town has received an AAA rating from Moody's Investor Service, which represents the strongest creditworthiness a municipality can receive, and AA+ from both Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings, representing very strong creditworthiness.  These ratings demonstrate the town's fiscal strength and translate into lower interest rates for town bonds. 


Last, but certainly not least, may I call to your attention a significant designation our island received in July? The readers of Travel & Leisure voted Hilton Head the No. 1 Island in the continental United States. Congratulations to all those who played a role in this outstanding achievement! Those of you who saw my Facebook post on this subject know that I attribute this success to the quality citizens who make up our community, together with some of our community’s greatest assets and organizations from A to Z!

In closing, I want to express my personal thanks for the helpful feedback and encouragement I receive on an almost daily basis from our residents and neighbors. Town Council takes every email, phone call and letter seriously, and appreciate it when people take the time to reach out and provide us with helpful information, ask questions or give us their thoughts on an issue. Our highest priority is to represent each of you well, and your input makes our pursuit of excellence and purposeful progress possible.