'Visioning' initiative for island's future moves forward

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Linda Stauffer, Lou Benfante, Johnny Stewart and David White share their thoughts at Table 7 during the June 23 Think Tank exercise, a part of the Hilton Head Island - Our Future initiative. PHOTO COURTESY TOWN OF HILTON HEAD ISLAND

Long-range thinking takes time, focus and introspection, but sometimes even the most dedicated effort can get derailed by everyday life and shifting priorities.

Things like a Category 2 hurricane and its aftermath, top-heavy government agendas and limited human resources can stall dreaming about the future.

"We're stepping back and trying to disengage from just the day to day and crises at hand, and really talk about the long term: What we would like to see this place look like decades into the future," said Steve Riley, Hilton Head Island town manager.

Despite some tepid and fitful attempts over the past several years, the "visioning process" of the island finally has moved off the back burner and onto the warming plate. Hilton Head Island - Our Future is the name given to the project.

The creation of a comprehensive long-range vision for Hilton Head was identified as a town council priority earlier this year.

"I would like to focus on our quality of life," Mayor David Bennett said about the project. "I believe if we do that, we will be successful.... But the follow-up is equally important."

Three years ago when Bennett was campaigning for the mayor's seat, one of his platform points was to get a commitment from town council to realize Hilton Head's potential that he said "suffered from a lack of overall vision."

Flash forward to now: The mayor, town council, town staff and many residents support developing a long-range vision for the next decade or two with specific details for an action plan. The agreed-upon timetable targets early 2018 as the completion date for the visioning initiative.

In February, the town council authorized the creation of a seven-member Vision Project Management Team (VPMT) to "develop consensus about what the future of the community wants and then decides what is necessary to achieve it," meeting minutes noted. In early spring, the group enlisted founder and chief executive officer David Beurle of Future iQ as the consultant to engage with the community and oversee the visioning process.

In April, upon the recommendation of Beurle, the VPMT hired a project lead for the Vision Committee, Emily Sparks, who is now on the town's payroll. Sparks presented her first monthly report in June to town council.

The town is serious about preserving and enhancing its strengths, as well as identifying weaknesses that need addressing.

"The goal of 'Our Future' is to ensure that residents, business owners, local institutions and all community stakeholders have a voice in future decision-making, and to provide the town with the insight needed to set intelligent, coordinated and creative future priorities," Sparks wrote in a press release.

Recent "Our Future" developments have been:

  • Launching of a new web site - lab.futureiq.com/hhiourfuture (also accessible at www.HiltonHeadIsland SC.gov) - that provides a forum for input in an interactive community survey. Bennett said that more than 1,500 citizens already have responded.
  • Hosting a "think tank" for about 150 invited guests June 23 who participated in scenario-building exercises.
  • Scheduling 20 to 30 public workshops through September for broad community engagement and discussions.

Bennett said this all-inclusive community involvement is critical to its success, unlike past efforts. "There had been some previous smaller attempts at developing a vision for the island, but none had been built on our large, broad number of our constituents," Bennett said. "The product was disconnected for most of the public. So without the input from a significant portion of our population, there was a serious disconnect and very little buying into it."

Among the topics for discussion and action are workforce and skills, health and wellness, transportation, housing, recreation, traffic issues, the aging population and the environment.

A final community vision report, including a recommended action plan, is expected to be delivered to town council early next year.

"They'll have a series of recommendations and the council will have to prioritize and then correct staff resources and additional things that we would need to start chasing after some of those," Riley said.

"I think the council has stepped up and are being the leaders they need to be," Bennett said. "It's been a process to get here where we are today."

Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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