Former Hilton Head Island Town Manager Steve Riley knows his community incredibly well – inside and out, one might say. He’s worked in town hall since 1991, most recently as town manager for the past 26 years.
His last official day on the job was Dec. 31, and the future will find him and his wife Mary Jo visiting Washington, D.C., where he will join the International City Managers Association and start up a new small business as well.
Riley knew what he was getting into as the top administrator in an embroiled situation in the ’90s, but it wasn’t a hard decision for him to step down decades later either.
“I realized a few years ago it was time,” the Nebraska native said. “I decided to stay for three more years, not until the end of time.”
After serving Beaufort County and the city of Beaufort as a planner, Riley worked in the private sector for a while before moving into the role of community development director for the Town of Hilton Head Island for three years.
When he assumed his position as town manager in 1994, there was a myriad of challenges facing him and the town: politics, economics, staffing and quality of life.
“I would go back to the early, early days where we had an election every two years,” said Riley, who has been involved for years in community service, leadership roles in local and statewide organizations, and seats on countless civic and governmental boards and committees.
“We had never re-elected a mayor,” he said. “There was a lot of turmoil back then, a lot of angst. We started to control growth but there were a lot of definitions of what ‘growth’ meant. When I got here in the early ’90s, there was a lot of turmoil. No consistency on counsel. We were challenged.”
His job was to restore calm in a fluid environment and move the town forward into the future.
“I tried to deal with some of the issues that were holding us back,” Riley said.
Through the years, Riley has had some confrontations and positional conflicts with other leaders. But he doesn’t lose any sleep over them, he said. It comes with his executive turf.
“You can’t do this job without compromise and lose one on occasion,” he said. “Move on; get over it.”
Riley is proud of what his team, town leaders and others have done to “move a lot of things forward. We have all kinds of plans, and we’ve implemented most of them. I’m proud of the staff and town.”
Among the accomplishments he cited are:
• Funding and constructing the South Carolina University/Beaufort campus on the island.
• Funding and constructing Celebration Park at Coligny on the south end.
• The town’s response to Hurricane Matthew’s onslaught.
• Providing water service to the entire island.
• Implementing a “massive” storm water master plan.
• Implementing a disaster management plan.
• Burying the overhead power lines.
• Implementing sewer improvements.
Though Riley downplayed his efforts before, during and after Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 as “just doing my job,” he was lauded mightily for those efforts.
“It was a big project and involved a lot of people,” he said. Riley, his staff and government officials hunkered down in a Bluffton emergency facility on Buckwalter to plan the next day’s assessment and inspection of the damage and plan for recovery. That night, Oct. 7, the rain was pounding and the winds were swirling. No one slept all night long, he said.
The next morning, Riley and his team were on the road to survey the destruction on the island. Fallen trees and debris made roads nearly impassable. Riley and his team mobilized and coordinated the effort with local government.
In recognition of his extensive and on-going efforts, Riley was chosen as the Grand Marshal of the 2017 Hilton Head Island St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He continued to share the credit with his staff.
Riley was honored Dec. 15, at his last council meeting, by the town council and others with whom he had served. Attending the virtual meeting were various surprise visitors, including Steve Wilmot, tournament director of the RBC Heritage, who presented a highly coveted tartan jacket to Riley. Fire Chief Brad Tadlock presented him with a commemorative fireman’s helmet.
Before getting back to business, Town Council had another surprise up its sleeve: They had renamed town hall the Stephen G. Riley Municipal Complex, and included a photo of the sign in a video montage.
In his update distributed to local media the next day, Deputy Town Manager Josh Gruber wrote, “Our Town council thought it was befitting to recognize Steve’s contributions and his legacy by renaming Town Hall … and unveiled the building sign yesterday, which was Steve’s last official Town Council meeting. We join Town Council in saying thank you to Steve for his leadership at the Town and across the community and region, his guidance and insight, and his friendship to many.”
Lowcountry resident Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.