Drew Laughlin: The new guy

Drew LaughlinDrew Laughlin is a rabid fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, “Rumpole of the Bailey” and jazz — the kind that “has something happening,” he says.

But Hilton Head Island’s first new mayor since 1995 is finding that he doesn’t have as much time to dedicate to those pursuits as he used to.

“People don’t realize that when the campaign is over, it’s not really over,” says the McKeesport, Pa., native and Hilton Head resident since 1977. “There’s a lot of  thanking to do, a lot of recognizing people’s efforts. I can’t just turn and forget the people who worked hard on me.”

Plus, Laughlin says, there’s still the matter of juggling his law practice and his mayoral obligations. But he’s prepared for his calendar to be full for a while. “There was the expectation from the beginning that doing the job well requires a substantial amount of time,” he says. “There were a lot of ideas thrown around (during the campaign), and now the task is to keep that energy sustained. We’ve got things we need to work on in. People are not doing well. We’ve got to revitalize the economy of this island.”

There’s a lot to get to, of course, but Laughlin is putting one thing first: hanging on to The Heritage, and not because of local pride and the nice golf. Clemson University’s International Institute for Tourism Research and Development estimated that visitors spent nearly $82 million during tournament week last year. “We just cannot afford to lose it,” he says. “The time for getting it done, to keep it here, is ticking away.”

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Mayor Laughlin’s foot taps rapidly as he talks about the local economy, which he says hasn’t looked this rough in his lifetime.

“I’ve been here when things weren’t going as well as we’d like — recessions, inflation, etc., — but not as deep and as long as this. I think the damage from this  (economic downturn) is going to be long-lasting. I know people on this island who have always been very successful, and they are broke. Really broke. I think about this as the new mayor.”

The island’s economy is no longer being driven by new development and construction, he says; that role is now being filled by tourism, hospitality and retiree spending. As such, revitalizing the island’s “built environment” — which includes, for instance, the proposed redevelopment of the South Beach and Coligny areas — is the new paradigm.

“We have to diversify and deepen our local economy and promote business activity,” he says, rather than continue focusing on the traditional tourismbased model. But that doesn’t mean abandoning the island’s identity. “I don’t see Hilton Head loosening our standards. It’s important to retain who we are,” he says. “I don’t want to see Hilton Head become like any other beach town. We need to look at what can be changed, put an emphasis on economic development. We haven’t had to do that before.”

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Laughlin takes a swig from a water bottle, which conveniently brings up another problem. For decades, Hilton Head has faced the troubling and potentially stifling problem of saltwater intrusion into the island’s drinking water, notably the Upper Floridan aquifer. These days, the island is relying more on surface water sources such as the Savannah River. There are also concerns about dredging in Harbour Town, South Beach Marina, Braddock Creek, and Gull Point Marina, all of which will be high on the new mayor’s to-do list.

But it’s a long list, one that includes expanding the runway (“I hope it becomes less of an issue as we move forward”), enhancing the communications infrastructure (“So we can attract entrepreneurs who can work wherever they are”), revamping the town’s land management ordinance and possibly finding a way to build a convention-style facility large enough to house orchestras, bands and theater.

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One of Laughlin’s sports heroes is Bill Mazeroski, the Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman who hit a game-winning home run in the final game of the 1960 World Series to beat the New York Yankees. A photo of Mazeroski’s arched-back swing hangs prominently on the wall in Laughlin’s new office, and the metaphor is a good one. Today, islanders are watching to see if the new mayor is the right man to lead Hilton Head out of one of its most challenging times, to see if he can, as they say, knock it out of the park.