September 2017

A Note From Our Mayors

Author: David Bennett & Lisa Sulka | Photographer: Krisztian Lonyai

A Note from David Bennett

Is unity in our community possible? When I was elected as your mayor nearly three years ago, it appeared to me that Hilton Head Island was really beginning to unite around the cornerstone issues that prompted people to vote for me and other newer Town Council members: strong accountability in government, completion of basic infrastructure for all islanders, and proactive visionary planning for our future together. I still fervently believe that the great majority support that agenda, despite some media reports and community chatter that might make you wonder. Let’s look at those cornerstone issues and the progress that is being made.

Accountability in government
First, let’s address Hurricane Matthew. I am tremendously proud of the immense effort that has been made during the past year toward our recovery. Town Manager Steve Riley and his staff are to be commended for the good decisions and their hard work delivering us to this point. Town Council and I have aptly played our supportive roles, as clearly defined in the town’s Disaster Recovery Plan.

Despite the town’s great recovery work, I have continued to receive harsh criticism for remaining in Florida during and immediately after the storm. The reality is that I did not make the decision to remain there alone; I made it together with our town manager. These facts were considered: 1) the storm had decimated Haiti and was approaching Florida; 2) evacuations were occurring along the entire Southeastern coast with corresponding impacts on infrastructure and airports; 3) much work needed to be done which necessitated reliable phone and Internet service; and 4) perhaps most important, the defined roles and responsibilities for the Town Council, the mayor, and the town manager during emergency situations had been previously established.

Our decision for me to remain in Florida was made in the best interest of our community. My primary focus was to position myself to fulfill my responsibilities, trusting that, if others and I did so, we would be successful.
Fulfilling these responsibilities had me interfacing with federal, state and local officials, Town Council members, several POA general managers, resort operators, utility companies, Sheriff Tanner, Steve Riley, and many, many of our citizens. In the days leading up to, during, and following the hurricane, I wanted nothing more than to instill confidence in our citizens and applaud and encourage the efforts of the town staff and so many others who worked tirelessly to return all of us home. Today, I want to reiterate that I worked hard for our community during this time, and I continue to extend my best efforts to this day. Together with Town Council and the town manager and staff, we have been both accountable and successful in getting this island back on its feet. Thanks for your support and understanding during this most difficult time.

On the subject of accountability, let me also assure you that Town Council and I have worked diligently to improve accountability and transparency regarding town contracts, the relationship with the Chamber of Commerce, town budgeting and employee evaluations. Substantial progress has been made, and yes, there is more to be done. Honestly, it bothers me to see editorials that promulgate inaccurate information concerning our town manager’s job status and, therefore, sow seeds of division. The fact of the matter is that Steve Riley has told Town Council that he is pursuing other opportunities for personal reasons, not because of interpersonal relationships between Steve and me or anyone else on the Town Council. It’s entirely up to him if he would like to share more information on that subject. I want nothing but the best for Steve and his family, and we all want what’s best for Hilton Head Island. It is perfectly normal for town employees to look for other opportunities from time to time, and it is also normal and prudent for Town Council to be aware and prepared for the possibilities of change. If we are to be fully accountable to our citizens—and we are—it’s the right thing to do.

Basic infrastructure for all islanders
Before I decided to run for mayor, my friend Alex Brown, a native islander and one of the most balanced people I know, introduced me to people, places and things I had never met nor witnessed. He pointed out the realities associated with the marginalization of some of our community’s longest standing citizens as a result of our town’s longstanding policies and priorities. I don’t know how else to characterize my perspective on what I saw except to say that my heart broke. If I could have come up with any other viable way to correct that injustice other than from the mayor’s position, I would have pursued it, but I couldn’t. And I could not know what I then knew and simply walk away, because to do so seemed cowardly or selfish or both, and I just didn’t want those traits to be associated with my character. I also didn’t want that stigma to continue to be our community’s legacy. While I truly believe that our community could benefit from better planning and more accountability, the only reason compelling enough for me to take time away from my family to devote to being your mayor was to stop this decades-long marginalization. Correcting this inequity is of paramount importance to me, as it is to so many of you who have wholeheartedly embraced these initiatives. These are critical steps toward our unity as a community.

Visionary planning
The need for intentional, proactive and visionary planning for the island is also at the core of my objectives for our town, and our priorities reveal that Town Council feels the same way. It has been a long and heavy lift to get this complex initiative to the starting line, so it is very exciting to see the town’s long-term visioning process, Our Future, get off to a strong and positive start. The development of a well-founded vision with strong support from all our citizens is an essential step toward community unity. Please plan to attend one of the engagement workshops in August and September, and make your voice heard as we come together to assure a vibrant and vital future for Hilton Head Island!

Accountability in government, basic infrastructure for all islanders, and visionary planning: I hope you will agree that significant progress has been made. We need your continued support and energy to fully realize these important priorities.


A Note from Lisa Sulka
Tying it all together

If you keep up with what the Town of Bluffton is doing regarding economic development, you know that we recently merged the Bluffton Public Development Corporation and the Don Ryan Center for Innovation into a single nonprofit—still named the Don Ryan Center for Innovation—to pursue a variety of economic development initiatives for our residents and our future. Because both organizations work in economic development but in different areas, it made sense to tie them together.

David Nelems, who was the executive director of the incubator is now the CEO of the organization. We hired Trent Williamson as VP of economic development. He comes to us from the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce where he worked in economic development. However, as a Beaufort County native, he has a love and understanding of this place we all share. We rounded out the team with Keri Dylan, our operations manager, and she keeps it all humming along. These three individuals are committed to growing Bluffton and the economic development opportunities under the guidance of their board of directors and Town Council and by listening to our residents concerning their needs.

This new organization is already making progress. We recently recruited a small, light and clean manufacturing company from the Northeast. Trent is working with this organization to make sure they get the right space and the right workforce for their needs. At the same time, the incubator side is making sure this company is set up properly from a legal, sales and marketing, and procedural standpoint so it can scale efficiently to meet the company’s demand. We believe within three years this one organization will bring 15 high-skilled, light manufacturing career opportunities to Bluffton. This is exactly what we envisioned when we merged the two organizations.

But most business growth comes from those who are already here. So, we are reaching out to local businesses to find out how we can help them grow. We are going to be marketing the remaining space at Buckwalter Place (yes there is still some space out there) for brand-new companies that offer high-impact, high-knowledge careers and Bluffton companies that need space to grow into. Finally, when the Don Ryan Center moves into its new office at Buckwalter in Q2 2018, we will launch “The HUB.”

“The HUB” will be the first co-working location in Bluffton and Southern Beaufort County. Our incubator will be there, space for start-up companies, public space for people to experience gigabit speed Internet, a great cup of coffee, the entrepreneurship community that exists in Bluffton and a great space just to be with like-minded individuals while work gets done.

Economic development, business incubation, co-working space, an experienced and dedicated staff, combined with a strategic plan for smart, right-sized economic growth and opportunities for Bluffton—all in one place and in one organization—ties it all together. Visit to learn more.

Finally, let me remind you that our third annual DRCI golf tournament will be held this September 11 at Palmetto Bluff. It is not too late to benefit from some great sponsorship opportunities and to sign up to play. It you were not lucky enough to get in the first two years, register now before it fills up again. Visit for details.

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