May 2015

Parks & Recreation Hilton Head Style

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: M.Kat

It was fall 2002. While Chaplin Park wasn’t quite completed, the huge ball fields were in use. Crossings Park was eight years old. Steve Riley, Hilton Head Island’s town manager, was coaching his son in six-year-old soccer. “We’d had practices up at Crossings. We’d had a couple of games there, but our third game of the season was going to be at Barker Field. And none of the parents knew where Barker was. That was a note to myself on how far we had come,” Riley said. “That was quite a milestone.”

Today, over 1,000 children play organized soccer on Hilton Head Island, according to Frank Soule, executive director of the Hilton Head Island Recreation Association. The association, a nonprofit organization, acts as the town’s recreation department. “Soccer continues to be popular. Lacrosse—we’re seeing growth there. Then there are programs we circle back to. Like girls softball. It kind of faded out, but now it’s coming back,” Soule said. Considering all the programs the “rec center” provides the community, Soule added, “On a regular basis, we touch four to five thousand people a year.”

Riley’s milestone and Soule’s thousands are a far cry from when one of Hilton Head Island’s mayors said, as late as 1994, there was no need for parks on the island and children could just go to the beach or learn to sail.

When the Town of Hilton Head Island incorporated in 1983, parks were not on the agenda. The town would be a “limited services” government, and parks were a service. But not everyone felt that way.

“When we incorporated we were really a collection of these gated communities, 10 sub-communities; we weren’t one community. We gave ourselves that name, ‘incorporated,’ but we really didn’t feel that way,” Riley said.

But parks and open space have been a critical part of culture of Hilton Head Island from the beginning of modern development and the creation of a new community. “Open space is an innate, instinctual quality of life for people” said Todd Ballantine, a renowned environmental expert, author and long-time islander who now resides in Boulder, Colorado. “The first public park on Hilton Head was the Newhall-Audubon preserve, a 50-acre site. In 1965, Beany Newhall talked [Charles] Fraser into giving her that land. He was looking for inciting and exciting gestures that reflected his ideas in Sea Pines. It was the first open space where you could watch wildlife, and it was free of charge and no gates, which is a big deal with me,” Ballantine said.

A wooden walkway through a canopy of trees at Jarvis Park.
A shady retreat at Shelter Cove Community Park.
The view from the Rowing and Sailing Center at Squire Pope Community Park.

A few years later a young insurance salesman, Maynard Barker, saw a need for a different kind of open space. Based on how he felt about the type of physical education his son was receiving at the island’s private school (which consisted of young Barker walking on a balance beam with a bean bag on his head), Barker senior felt the need to found the Gators youth football program, and the Gators needed a field. Barker got Beaufort County to provide the land, and volunteers went to work building a football field and baseball diamond. Rumor had it that “excess sod” from one of the golf courses in Sea Pines helped move the project along.

There was also the community outside the gates. “If you didn’t live in a development, there wasn’t anything for the kids,” said Charles Perry, who moved his family, which included four children, to Hilton Head in the 1970s.

He became an early advocate of parks and recreation; he saw a need and went to work. Perry headed up the Island Recreation Association and, with the help of fellow Rotarians, got the Island Rec Center built. He was also commissioner on the island’s first Parks and Recreation Commission. The ball field at Crossings Park bears his name. “The community, the island needed parks, not just the kids,” Perry said. “That’s why I got involved.”

In 1987 environmental expert Ballantine and a land planner, Gerry Venable, were hired to create a plan for the town called “PROS, Parks, Recreation and Open Space 30-Year Master Plan.” Ballantine said the plan “included the bike trails and a central park off of Burkes Beach, among other ideas. The town did adopt the plan in theory.”

While the plan created controversy, a condition that continues to be emblematic of Hilton Head Island, the town did start moving in the “park direction.” In 1989 Coligny Beach Park opened. For park advocates, though, the town was moving at a snail’s pace. Riley explained why. “When we set out on parks, it wasn’t me, it wasn’t a member of council, and it wasn’t just Island Rec. It was a whole collection of efforts, like getting the county involved, and it was getting the schools in, Gator football and Dixie baseball, the different entities that had their little piece of the pie in. It was really about trying to build that community. By getting the kids together and getting the people from Prep and Christian Academy and public schools together on the soccer field or baseball field and getting people out of their plantation,” he said.

But the one extraordinary event that made active parks possible on Hilton Head looked, at first, like it wouldn’t happen. In 1992, because of a massive bankruptcy on the island, large parcels of land were selling for pennies on the dollar. That year, using real estate transfer fee money, the town was able to buy 85 acres off Palmetto Bay Road.

Tom Peeples
Previous Mayor of Hilton Head Island at Honey Horn Plantation

Tom Peeples remembered that time. “I was on Town Council then, and Charles Perry and I made an impassioned plea that if the town would budget money to build this park, I had no doubt that the community would come up with the balance. The town wasn’t going to pay for it all. There was three quarters of the money on the town side. So there was a challenge grant to the community of $250,000. We couldn’t complete the entire park unless the community came up with the money,” Peeple’s said.

All those different entities that Riley referred to did get together. People for Parks was formed by the Island Recreation Association to raise the funds. While there were some big donors, much of the money raised came in smaller donations, like children donating their allowance. Companies donated in-kind services and materials.
“Well, $750,000 later, that’s what the community came up with, not $250,000,” Peeples said. “We were about to complete the park and do other phases that no one had anticipated that we would be able to do. That, to me, set the tone. Number one, it proved the need, and two, it proved the fact that when we gave the citizens the opportunity, they would stand up and make it happen.”

Crossings Park opened in 1996. The adjacent Bristol Sports Arena, which opened in 1998, was funded almost entirely by private funds, the largest coming from the Bristol Foundation.

Charles Fraser At Compass Rose Park

In 1995, the town purchased 67 acres of a failed development for Chaplin Community Park, which opened in 2001. Islanders again stepped up to the plate with funds for the tennis complex and dog park. Even old Barker Field got a new look. Possibly taking a cue from the town, Beaufort County worked with the town to double the size of Barker from two fields to four and added a boardwalk the overlooks Port Royal Sound.

While the island’s active parks drew much of the attention of every island family with children, the town was also busy acquiring land, planning and creating the kind of parks that build community in a different way. At the other end of the Cross Island Parkway, Jarvis Creek Park opened in 2003, with trails, picnic areas, a playground, even fishing. Playgrounds and fishing brought people together.

Then there was Fish Hall Park, the kind that Beany Newhall envisioned: a slice of barrier island forest that leads to the sea, in this case, Port Royal Sound, that can simply overwhelm visitors with the power of nature.

One “park” that few on the island ever envisioned may be the ultimate island park that combines natural and human history. It provides the largest public gathering place on the island that the town had the wisdom to preserve for future generations: 69-acre Honey Horn. Owned by the town and leased to the Coastal Discovery Museum for $1 a year, travel journals such as Travel + Leisure and Coastal Living fall over themselves, describing Honey Horn, a once working farm on the island, “almost impossible to believe” and “an amazing prize for visitors.” In the Hilton Head Island tradition, and following in her husband’s example, Mary Ann Peeples through private funding, local and state grants, raised the millions required to create the museum’s home.

The town now has seven beach parks, allowing access to islanders they didn’t always have before the parks were built. There are seven community parks, and half dozen recreational parks. Then there are the 60 miles of pathways that go from park to park and link the island’s diverse communities, a program that began in 1989 that linked Sea Pines Circle and the entrance to Palmetto Dunes.

The future of parks on the island is represented by the current Parks and Recreation Commission chairman Heather Rath. “I became involved in parks and recreation because I wanted to make sure there was a young voice that was being heard. I wanted young families on this island to have a voice in town hall regarding parks and recreation. Having a younger person that was raising a family here on the island was essential to building a better commission,” Rath said.

Her vice chairman, Peter Keber, a long-time resident, had his perspective on the future. “In the 1970s and early ’80s, the sports on the island were golf and tennis. That’s changed. Don’t get me wrong; those are great and so is the beach. The beach is fantastic. But there’s now more to it than that. I think parks and recreation has to continue to evolve to be an economic developer to this island—not just a little one either; it is huge,” Keber said.

As for the future, Riley said, “We’ve got the rec center expansion, which is in the permitting stages right now. Soon we’ll have pathways radiating out from Shelter Cove to Chaplin. We’re looking at a special events space to bring activity to Coligny other than in the summertime. And we have this piece at Chaplin we’re looking at. It will be one of the coolest playgrounds you ever saw.”

But at the same time he cautions, “These parks that we built are coming up on 25 years. They are going to need major rehab. Ought there to be changes? Is there a new list of things we should have in our parks? Where do we find the money?”

On Hilton Head Island, home to dreamers, future MLS forwards, NBA guards, NFL quarterbacks, Olympic swimming champs, ATP power servers, PGA tournament champions, so much seems to be possible.
“Charles [Fraser] set the stage. He started the whole concept of preserving the land and setting aside areas to have active and passive parks for people to experience. He truly believed in that, without any question,” Tom Peeples said.

Charles Fraser, the 27-year-old dreamer who thought up this idea of living within nature, not on it, who set aside 600-plus acres of the community he developed for a “park,” who insisted on bike paths throughout Sea Pines to connect neighborhoods, did set the stage. Inside and outside the gates.

Combining the island’s public pathways and gated communities’ paths, the island now has well over 100 miles of bike paths. As Joanna Nadeau in Audubon International wrote, “Hilton Head Island received the Bicycle Friendly Community Award (Silver) from the League of American Bicyclists in 2011 and is the only municipality in South Carolina to have the designation and one of the few in the Southeast.”

James Chaffin, a developer and former Urban Land Institute chairman, who cut his real estate teeth working for Fraser in the late 1960s, brought up a funny story at Fraser’s funeral in 2002. At the time of Fraser’s death, a tragic boating accident, he was consulting on a new real estate project in the Turks and Caicos. Back in the ’60s, Chaffin said people thought Fraser was nuts for putting in bike paths in Sea Pines. They said it was such a waste of money and would be Fraser’s huge folly.

It would seem “they” were wrong. Again. 

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