Council endorses creation of island economic-development corporation

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Council endorses creation of island economic-development corporation

By TOM BARTON
tbarton@islandpacket.com
Published Tuesday, November 20, 2012   |  639 Words  |  

The Town of Hilton Head Island will try to stem an economic slide by creating a nonprofit marketing and business-recruitment organization.

Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday, with Ken Heitzke absent, to accept a recommendation from a mayoral committee to create an economic-development corporation governed by a board of volunteers and led by a full-time director.

Its mission: Broaden the economy by attracting new business, coordinating redevelopment projects and marketing Hilton Head as a great place to live, work and retire.

The group would be supported by town staff and accountable to Town Council, which set aside $80,000, plus benefits, in the current budget for a new full-time economic development position.

Who would serve on the nonprofit's board, administrative costs and other details have yet to be determined. A timeline for creating the corporation has also not been set.

"I view this as adopting a framework and details to be filled in later," Mayor Drew Laughlin said, adding the topic will be discussed in more depth during council's three-day workshop Nov. 29 to Dec. 1.

Hilton Head Island lost 5,609 jobs between 2007 and 2010, a 12-percent decline that led to a loss of more than $780 million in economic output, according to a study by University of South Carolina Beaufort hospitality management professor John Salazar.

The slide was driven by real estate losses resulting from the recession and a long-term decline in tourism revenue, according to Salazar.

"(Hilton Head) has historically been very dependent on real estate linked to the tourism and second-home market, and revenues declined sharply," the committee wrote in its report to council.

And while the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce focuses on tourism, there is no apparent focus on the second-home or retiree segment, the report states.

That is where the town's new economic development corporation should come in, committee members concluded.

Until now, developers and business leaders marketed the island and guided its economic growth, which was tempered by concern for the environment, committee members have said.

Today, that role has shifted to the town, as many developers and leaders have left and most of the island has reached build-out.

"There is no visible presence on the town website or in the town directory for businesses seeking to find assistance," the committee wrote in its report. "Assistance is provided on an ad hoc basis to potential businesses who seek out and find the Community Development staff."

The nonprofit organization would become the lead manager and deal maker for local businesses interested in growing and those wanting to come to Hilton Head. It would coordinate with Beaufort County, the state, the Lowcountry Economic Alliance, the chamber of commerce and the Realtors association, according to the recommendation approved by council.

It would also work with island leaders to find solutions to infrastructure issues inhibiting businesses, such as limited wireless services and few direct flights to and from larger markets.

The nonprofit would focus specifically on attracting finance and insurance businesses and health and social services -- two sectors that grew both in dollar volume and annual share of the local economy from 2007 to 2010, according to Salazar.

"This group will provide a singular focus on economic development and revitalization on Hilton Head," Laughlin said after the meeting, serving as a "one-stop-shop" for businesses looking to relocate, expand or redevelop. "We want economic development to be a permanent, focused effort, and council feels this is the way to do that."

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