On a sunny February afternoon, a cyclist sped his racing bike down an asphalt trail on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island, gaining momentum—until he was forced to brake hard to avoid colliding with two elderly women who had stopped their broad-tired beach cruisers for a chat. Clearly annoyed, he darted off the path and cut into a stream of cars on Route 278, the divided four-lane road that spans the 12-mile-long (19.3 km) island on the Atlantic Coast.
The contrast between the serious biker in tights and toe-clipped cycling shoes and the ladies meandering about in capris and sun visors is symbolic of the 21st-century challenge facing Hilton Head, a resort town steeped in 20th-century tradition: how to reach beyond the affluent retirees drawn to its famed golf resorts to a broader market that includes baby boomers and members of generations X and Y who enjoy its pristine beaches, but who have many other recreational and cultural interests as well.
- Related: Charles Fraser’s Legacy to ULI
The legacy of the late land use visionary and ULI leader Charles Fraser, who developed Hilton Head’s first resort community during the 1960s and 1970s, is evident all over the island. Fraser’s 5,000-acre (2,000 ha) Sea Pines Plantation, with nearly 6,000 residential units and amenities that include golf, tennis, boating, horseback riding, dining, and shopping, was awarded a ULI Award for Excellence in 1985 and a ULI Heritage Award in 1994. The environmentally conscious development practices Fraser initiated have influenced the design of both residential and commercial areas throughout Hilton Head. Nearly every side street curves around sprawling live oaks draped in Spanish moss; on the main road, retail signs are painted in muted shades of beige, brown, and green. In every neighborhood, homes and stores blend in with the natural habitat.
Now, a half century after Fraser started selling lots and just over ten years since his death, private and public sector representatives are grappling with how to update Hilton Head’s image—maintaining its reputation as a place to relax and recharge, but also positioning it to keep pace with changing times. It is a task that requires creating an environment to spur economic growth while preserving the characteristics that have distinguished the island as a place of uncommon beauty.
At ULI South Carolina’s recent annual meeting, held for the first time on Hilton Head, the reinvention process was discussed in depth, offering some lessons learned for resort-oriented communities seeking to become more multigenerational in appeal. The two-day district council program featured a marquee panel of those with long memories of Hilton Head—including ULI Chairman Peter Rummell, former ULI chairmen James Chaffin and J. Ronald Terwilliger, and former ULI trustee James Light, all of whom started their real estate careers working for Fraser in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The agenda also included several ULI members and community leaders involved in setting Hilton Head’s future course. The consensus among the speakers: exclusivity is out and inclusivity is, well, in.
Chaffin was recruited to sell land at Sea Pines by Fraser and Light; he and Light are now chairmen of Chaffin and Light Management, with offices in Okatie, South Carolina, and Basalt, Colorado. He noted that gated communities, a development form that was a strong selling point in the island’s early days and one that remained popular for years, are losing ground to a market segment more interested in openness. “The market today does not care about elitism or gated communities. When you ask people what is important to them, it boils down to the experiences they have, the friends they make, and the way they are treated,” he said. “It’s about the institution of community—how you weave together the threads of community. As community developers, we have to get beyond amenities like golf and tennis and focus on what we can do to foster connectedness.”
Rummell, principal of the Rummell Company in Jacksonville, Florida, pointed out that demographic shifts are having a lasting impact on resort developments, particularly those seeking to expand their economies beyond the hospitality industry to attract more permanent residents and “knowledge economy” workers. “The impact that younger generations are having on resort development is a huge issue,” he said. “Gated communities are yesterday’s solution. They don’t work well environmentally, economically, or in terms of infrastructure. We are living in a more urban world, and people are reacting more favorably to places that offer a more urbanlike setting.” Golf—long perceived as a symbol of gentility and affluence—at some point likely will become more of a secondary than primary draw in many resort communities, Rummell predicted.
Fraser would advise those involved in reinventing Hilton Head to let the experiences of other communities be a guide, Rummell noted. “If Charles were here, the first thing he would do is go look at a dozen other places to see how they had aged, what worked, and what didn’t. He’d take an idea from each of those, and he’d learn from them.”
Fraser’s ideas, his commitment to excellence in design and amenities, and his insistence on developing in harmony with nature are what brought the tourists who ultimately became residents and business owners in the town of Hilton Head Island, said David Ames, founder of Amesco, an urban planning consulting firm in Hilton Head. The town, incorporated in 1983, now has a permanent population of more than 40,000 and draws about 2.5 million visitors annually. “The people who chose to come to the island because of his [Fraser’s] vision have shaped the island’s character and created its special ambience. It’s this community spirit, energy, and pride that we are seeking in the island’s reinvention,” Ames said.
Following the island’s initial development, Hilton Head entered a phase between 1978 and 2008 that could be characterized, Ames said, as the years of “maintaining the status quo”—a period during which residents supported investments of more than $13 million for parks, $50 million for beach renourishment, $24 million for road improvements, and $162 million for land conservation, as well as creation of 56 miles (90 km) of bike paths.
The movement to change the status quo started during the Great Recession, which left the island—like many other resort areas dependent on the hospitality industry—in an economic slump. In 2009, the town’s comprehensive plan listed 300 planning strategies, most related to managing growth. Few focused specifically on economic expansion. Through the work of a mayoral task force, the plan was subsequently revised to include five strategies to be implemented over 25 years:
renew an emphasis on environmental and community-planning leadership;
position the island as a “refuge from the common place”;
position the government as business friendly;
broaden and deepen the economy; and
revitalize existing buildings and infrastructure.
The revised strategy is part of the process of “reinvigorating Fraser’s dream,” Ames said. Among the first steps is the establishment of the Hilton Head Island Institute, which is designed to study and create lectures and other programs on subjects related to livability, such as health, wellness, lifestyles, ecology, community planning, and design.
The institute’s first gathering is planned for this fall, said Ames, who serves on the institute’s board. “Our goal is to attract young, ambitious, adventuresome, entrepreneurial, independent thinkers—the same type of people who created Hilton Head—who will become island leaders and provide new energy and new ideas. We see the institute as capturing the essence of Charles’s vision and what has made the vision endure—cutting-edge ideas, and youthful in orientation and spirit.”
The local government is also working to ease the entitlement and development process, including rewriting the town’s 25-year-old land management ordinance, said Jim Gant, a resident and volunteer on the ordinance redrafting committee. The rewrite includes provisions to reduce the number of land use zones, allow more mixed-use development, reduce use restrictions, and relax some design standards to allow more renovations. Though geared toward more flexibility, the overhaul carries on Hilton Head’s commitment to environmental stewardship, he said. “The world is different now, and changes are called for,” Gant said.
Abundant signs can be found across the island of efforts to give Hilton Head a facelift, but with respect for the sensibilities that have made it a thriving destination. Golf remains the sport for which Hilton Head is particularly well known: the island has 25 public courses and four private ones. The Heritage Classic Professional Golf Association tournament (now named the RBC Heritage for title sponsor Royal Bank of Canada) has been held annually at Sea Pines’ Harbour Town Golf Links for 45 years. The Riverstone Group, which now owns Sea Pines Plantation, just completed a new course designed by Pete Dye.
While noting that “golf is still important at Sea Pines,” Sea Pines president Steve Birdwell said efforts are underway by the company to make the golfing experience at the community appear less formal. As part of a multiyear, resortwide revitalization that could cost as much as $100 million, Riverstone is building a new golf club that Birdwell said will have a “casual feel” reflecting South Carolina’s Low Country architectural style. The club is envisioned to be a gathering point for the Sea Pines community, he said. “We are repositioning Sea Pines for the future to make it more competitive.”
Renovations are underway at several of Hilton Head’s major hotels and in the eclectic Coligny neighborhood shopping district, which is adding a lifelong learning center operated through the University of South Carolina. At the island’s main shopping mall in the Shelter Cove community, work is underway to better connect the mall with an adjacent park and nearby waterways, said Mark Senn, president of Augusta, Georgia–based Blanchard Calhoun, which is redeveloping the facility. The project will include new apartments. “Since the recession, we’ve found a great demand for rentals,” Senn said. “We’re getting calls from people who lost equity in their homes, but they still have income. They’re tired of owning and they want the flexibility [of renting]. This is who we’re catering to.”
The area’s repositioning efforts are not limited to the island. In Bluffton, just across the bridge connecting Hilton Head to the mainland, the community of Buckwater Place was one of several to switch course during the recession. Planned in 2002 as a retail destination, the community was targeted in 2007 for a different economic driver by developer JCM Ventures of Savannah, Georgia. “We needed to diversify the economy to attract knowledge workers,” said company owner Matthew Green.
CareCore National, a health care firm, moved to Buckwater Place from New York state, becoming the major anchor for the development, with retail and dining as supportive uses. Subsequently, a small-business incubator, the Don Ryan Center for Innovation, moved to the development. Plans call for construction of compact, moderate-cost residential units to provide more workforce housing. “We’re working on how to match the desires of younger workers with those of older baby boomers,” Green said.
Gerrit Albert, vice president of Crescent Resources in Bluffton, described the evolution of the nearby Palmetto Bluff community into one that is family oriented, with nodes of activity such as community gardens and an arts park. “It’s all about interaction, about creating an atmosphere of inclusivity,” Albert said. “People disdain isolation. . . . Golf [as the main draw] is being replaced by food, wine, and lifelong learning centers.”
John Reed, a former Fraser employee, has developed properties on Hilton Head for 40 years, witnessing the expansion of consumer interests beyond golf into a broad range of sports, culture, and arts-oriented pursuits. Now president and chief executive officer at Reed Development in Bluffton, Reed said the company noticed in 2006 a shift among buyers at its Berkeley Hall community. The game changer: buyers from the silent and greatest generations (age 68 and older) were being replaced by baby boomers seeking variety in recreational offerings and prices.
Although sales dropped dramatically during the recession, he said his company was convinced that the trend toward younger buyers would resume when the market turned. As a result, it dropped plans for another golf course even though it had already completed the permitting process. It was a decision Reed believes has helped keep the development viable: “Our buyers don’t want country club living; they want gathering places. They want places with a neighborly feel. Just building [high-end] custom homes on golf courses will not drive the market.”
- Related: Charles Fraser’s Legacy to ULI
In the current environment of demographic and economic shifts, Reed said he often recalls an important lesson from Fraser—to “constantly ask yourself what your customers want” in order to avoid getting blindsided while standing on tradition. “There are opportunities in responding to change,” he said.