As official mayoral runoff election results come in, Alan Perry, center, embraces his wife, Kathy, at a watch party for friends and supporters at Club Seats Grille on Hilton Head Island. Perry’s brother, Reid, gestures in celebration at right. LYNNE COPE HUMMELL

There was a minute in the late 1990s when Alan Perry was on the verge of leaving the island he’d called home for more than two decades. 

Multiple job offers in Atlanta beckoned and for a day or two, Perry was intrigued with the prospect of a major life change.

“Thankfully, I came to my senses,” said Hilton Head Island’s new mayor, who was sworn in Dec. 6. “I checked myself, said, ‘What am I doing?’ And it was right then that I decided to dig in and double my efforts to be involved with the community I love.”

Perry said he feels that the biggest victories, like his work in expanding the Island Recreation Center, and his biggest failures – including his 2018 mayoral race loss – have made him the right leader for a crucial time in the island’s history.

“A bad loss sometimes creates a good win,” Perry said of his 2018 election loss. “I was more prepared this time than I was the first time. That loss made me realize that I needed to listen more, to focus my message and my priorities around that listening.”

The redux appeared headed toward an equally disappointing loss, as JoAnn Orischak led by 440 votes after the results were counted on Nov. 8. The lack of a majority triggered the runoff, which gave Perry and his team another chance to win over voters – specifically those who had voted for Thomas Cleary, who had dropped out of the race a month before the election but whose name was still on the ballot.

Team Perry turned the results around, winning by 1,000-plus votes and 56% of the 8,600 ballots cast in the Nov. 22 runoff. Even more impressive, he converted votes in crucial neighborhoods like Hilton Head Plantation and Sea Pines away from Orischak.

“I feel very blessed to be given this opportunity to lead,” Perry said. “I want to show our voters results and show them that bureaucracy does not have to halt positive change. I think I can provide a different style of leadership both among the Town Council and to our citizens. And that begins with transparency and communication.”

By the time you’re reading this, Perry has finished his first day in office – a time he said is going to involve a lot of face-to-face meetings and imparting his message of teamwork to the full town staff team.

Perry had no interest in running a negative campaign and walked an impressive tightrope of discussing what he’d do differently without criticizing past administrations or councils.

“Where would that get us? It’s about what’s ahead of us and how we can impact our island evolving to meet the needs of both the residents and the millions of tourists that feed our economy,” Perry said. “The truth is, we have a lot of good things going for us and we need to accentuate that as we discuss that evolution.”

He said those positives begin with Town Manager Marc Orlando. He has been impressed with Orlando’s tenacity in bridging communication gaps and in his leadership both inside Town Hall and around the community. 

Perry also said that even though there are challenges ahead, he knows that the character and the heart of the island he fell in love with 50 years ago is still intact.

“It’s important to recognize that. We have a strong master plan and a solid core of measured growth as our foundation,” he said. 

Perry is stepping into the mayor’s office at a pivotal point. Redevelopment of the mid-island tract and how to make sure the island’s needs are met in the re-imagining of the island bridge are two projects that will impact many generations to come.

“I know that both of these issues are in progress, plans approved, a lot of discussions have taken place, but I am coming at both of these projects with a focus on return on investment and quality of life,” Perry said.

He said when it comes to the bridge project, it is time to be more forceful in ensuring the island’s needs are met.

“We have been on the defensive in these talks; it’s time to be pro-active rather than reactive to the county,” he said. “We have an end-to-end study that Sen. Davis brought to the table that is still out for bids months later into December. We need to get that done, and to fight for so many questions that have not been answered. 

“What’s going to happen to the causeway? Is it a four-lane or five-lane project? There are necessary evils here to get people on and off the island. We’re at 38,000, what if we grow to 42,000 and more of our residents need to get off island for work or to visit friends and events on the mainland? 

“I’ve heard the frustration from residents, but we need to move toward how to achieve our goals here and to not be pushed into timelines until our needs are fully addressed.”

As for the massive mid-island tract project, Perry said he also has concerns with maximizing value of the end product.

“I’m not in favor of all the elements of the park phase, for example,” he said. “There are so many positives here, but I want to ensure we maximize functionality over vanity. We have a Monet garden in the plan right now. That’s beautiful but expensive. Is that the best use of the funds and our efforts? It’s one of the questions I want to address as this projects breaks ground and the plan evolves.”

Perry also said workplace housing and continued attention to islanders’ recreational needs. It is a point of pride for Perry – his father was the founder of the Island Rec Center, and he fought for 12 years to push through the expansion of the center. 

“The housing study we did in 2016 and 2019, it’s already obsolete. Addressing this issue, we have to foster those public-private partnerships that work,” Perry said. “We have momentum on this issue, we can’t lose that because the shortage of workers will get worse if we regress back to being stagnant. But is it condo housing, is it more Habitat for Humanity-style projects? And whatever we do, we have to make it happen without raising taxes. It’s complicated and a lot of factors to address, but I know this council and this staff team can make it happen.”

As for recreation, Perry said pickleball is at the top of his list.

“We need a world-class facility here, period. There is a need for tourists and residents and a real economic opportunity to capitalize on bringing events to the island,” he said.

The concept that he is the one that gets to lead all these efforts has Perry pinching himself a bit to make sure it’s real.

“I’m so excited. I love this island so much. We have 170 non-profits here, we have so many folks that dig in and create solutions. It’s an amazing knowledge base to tap into,” he said. “Above all, I am focused on creating teamwork with the council, to find the common goals and beliefs that we can build off of and maximize the incredible talents these folks bring.”

Perry acknowledges the sacrifices others made in order to serve the community.

“It takes a lot to run for public office these days. These folks did that because they care deeply,” he said. “That’s an incredible foundation to begin from.”

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. timwood@blufftonsun.com.