Read tomorrow's Island Packet about Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin's second State of the Town address to the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area.
Below are additional excerpts from Laughlin's speech and Q&A that followed.
IMPROVING THE LOCAL ECONOMY
"We came in a year ago with a platform of putting ourselves in a position to attract quality, private investment in the revitalization of our commercial centers and accommodations throughout the island," Laughlin said. "In spite of the fact the economic climate is bad, there's a lot of money sitting our there with nothing to do, because there's no productive place to put it with an attractive risk-reward equation."
Laughlin pointed to changes the town made in the fall to streamline its commercial permitting process to help make development easier, faster and more predictable.
The town also created a committee and is in the process of hiring a consultant to help guide in through a comprehensive re-write of town land use regulations.
Town officials say the regulations formed to slow the town's rapid growth in the 1990s are now obstacles to reinvestment.
"We don't want to change who we are, but we want to remain vital and relevant and have a sustainable economy," he said. "But we understand time is money."
Laughlin said the efforts are already starting to have an effect, namely plans unveiled in November to redevelop the languishing Mall at Shelter Cove.
A real estate affiliate of The Kroger Co. purchased the 42-acre property and 300,000-square-foot mall Aug. 10 for about $17.3 million, almost $7 million below its assessed market value and less than half of it's original sale price, according to Beaufort County property records.
"We want them to be breaking ground in 2012," Laughlin said.
The Hilton Oceanfront Resort in Palmetto Dunes is slated for a $20 million makeover. There's also talk of the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa getting a similar magnitude makeover. Sea Pines Resort and Greenwood Communities and Resorts also are contemplating "major investments," according to the mayor.
"The word is out there and there are good things happening," Laughlin said. "The challenge then becomes: What is the town's role in assisting this, beyond getting out of the way? How much investment of public resources and funds is productive for us? And what can we reasonable do with constraints imposed upon use by the state tax code?"
Council and staff will also spend a lot of time on plans for redeveloping the Coligny area, Laughlin said. The town solicited bids last month for an economic impact and feasibility study for a new commercial district at Coligny.
Redeveloping Hilton Head's Coligny area has long been a priority for the town, which faces a December 2014 deadline to commit an estimated $13 million captured from a tax-increment finance district to parks, roads, pathways, boardwalks, parking, drainage and landscaping.
The town owns quite a bit of property around Coligny Circle and south of Pope Avenue.
"Right now, we have a pretty ugly parking lot and would like to develop it into a central park area," Laughlin said."And road improvements to divert traffic around the area to make a pedestrian-friendly commercial district. ... The challenge is not to get the plan so big is collapses from its own weight."
Laughlin rejected assertions that cuts to town staffing could be made to help pay for future projects and eliminate the need to raise new revenue.
About 60 percent of the town's budget pays for fire and rescue costs.
"We have seven fire stations we have to man and equip," Laughlin said. "Why so many? Because we are an island. We're not a grid and they have to go around plantation gates and boundaries to get to you if you're having a heart attack."
He said the staffing is important to maintain quick response times for an aging island population of retirees.
"And first-class emergency response will attract future retirees," Laughlin said.
CELL PHONE SERVICE
Laughlin said council and staff will streamline permitting for cell towers and make it easier to place them on town land. He also said town has a much better idea of how wireless carriers operate and plans to work with them to respond to service needs.