February 2019

Five Drinks with: Mayor John McCann

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Hilton Head Island’s new mayor talks town business and why the next four years will be about much more than just fixing mistakes.

If you go by public perception, John McCann might seem like a hardliner. With his strong New York accent and even stronger viewpoints, he cuts the figure of someone who draws a line in the sand and refuses to back down. But meet him in person, as so many have through his regular community meetings, and you find someone open to communication.

You find an island resident who has seen changes made that left his fellow residents behind. You find a newly elected mayor who simply wants to do right by them.

He’s drinking: Ketel One on the rocks with a lime.
I’m drinking: Jim Beam on the rocks.

How are you enjoying the gig so far?
Loving it.

A lot of the narrative of your election was framed as John McCann’s coming in to fix the mistakes. Would you think that’s a fair representation?
I don’t think so at all. In the year and a half I’ve been running, I’ve learned a lot more from the people who are here than I have as a councilman. I don’t think it’s a matter of fixing mistakes; it’s a matter of doing what the people want to do. We did lose four years, because we didn’t get a lot accomplished. You never get those four years back, so you shouldn’t worry about the mistakes. There are four more good years coming up for the people of this town.

What are you most excited about in the next four years?
Spending as much time as I can with the people of this island. I mean, we’ve decided to move four council meetings outside of the chambers; we’ve decided to have meet and greets—12 of them next year. I enjoy being on the outside. We did 43 different meet and greets at 43 different homes and talked to people along the way. People are concerned about the corridor coming in with the one percent sales tax. People are concerned about workforce development. People are concerned about having a master plan for our parks. And people are concerned about health care. Those are the four major things people are concerned about. And they want a little more civility at the town than we’ve had in the past. That, we’re hoping to accomplish right away.

That’s a pretty heavy-duty punch list.
It is. That’s why there are four years.

You’ve talked about workforce housing as being something the private sector should handle. Are you seeing a lot of hospitality groups stepping up?
I believe that workforce housing should not be subsidized housing. The government shouldn’t be involved in it. We shouldn’t build housing; we shouldn’t use our own land; we should just help people along with their building process. In the last three weeks, I’ve talked to at least five or six people around here who want to build something here because they need something. If you look at Sea Pines, they bought land outside of Sea Pines to build housing. A lot of people have started to work on their own. If you give people an opportunity and the right tools, capital markets will take care of all this. But you have to help them along.

Let’s talk about your personal life a little bit.
I’m a Yankee fan. I was in the financial service businesses for 44 years. Started out at Merrill Lynch as a trainee and retired as CEO and chairman of a firm in St. Louis, Bridge Trading. I’ve been coming here since 1988. We bought a timeshare in 1988, bought our home in 1998, and we’ve been coming down here full-time since 2003.

So, when did you get into local politics?
The first three years, I was president of the Port Royal Plantation board. Then I was chairman of the Technical College’s foundation board. Then I went into politics. We were sitting around complaining, just like you and me sitting around talking about things. My friend said, “You should get into politics,” and I laughed. That’s how we got into it. I’d never run for political office before.

When we first moved here, my wife made it clear to me that she wasn’t making lunch for me every day and I should find something to do with my life. It’s been interesting. It’s different.

What’s something that would surprise people about you?
That I wasn’t born in the South? (laughs). I’m an avid baseball fan—my wife and I go to spring training every year. We bid on something two years ago—time on the field with Brian McCann. We got there around 3 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game and spent time with Brian during batting practice. It happened to be the day A-Rod was playing his last game, so the whole place was going crazy.

What are some of the positives you’ve seen in your eight years on council?
I’m very impressed by the people who work there. They’re dedicated; they’re hard-working; they’re brighter than the average person. You need to respect what they do, and I don’t think we’ve done that a lot. There’s a lot of talent there.

[Steve] Riley is as good a town manager as you can get. I think the public wants someone to represent them and be out there. I mean, the public wants to know who their mayor is and get their two cents in without complaining all the time.

The town is doing its three biggest projects ever in the next three years. Have you been to the new USCB campus yet? The outside looks like the one out in Bluffton, the inside is totally different. It’s huge, welcoming. We did one of our town council meetings there. We did our annual retreat there. That’s on one corner. Halfway down Pope Avenue is the new Marriott hotel; it’s going to be four stories with a pool and a bar on the roof that can see the ocean. Then on the end of the block is a $20 million park we’re building. Those will be the three cornerstones of Coligny.

What are some other areas of the island you think could benefit from that kind of attention?
You look right up here at the corner, you have Northridge Plaza. You have Sea Turtle which has stopped building. Then you look across the street at Port Royal Plaza. That’s a whole area that needs revitalization. And I also believe you can take a lot of empty commercial space and convert that into housing, too. There are opportunities to do things here; it’s just a matter of time and money.

The native islanders on the north end of the island need more sewers; that could be a project that would go on for many years. And it’s a very worthwhile project.

Speaking of native islanders, it seems over the last few years there’s been a heightened awareness that this is an important part of our cultural fabric. How do you see that growing?
I think it’s one of the biggest economic drivers we have. It could be another Williamsburg. There’s a whole opportunity there; it’s just a matter of doing it right and protecting all the land around it so we don’t have just one park that doesn’t belong there. We’re looking at doing some land purchasing with the county there. We’re looking to move the old St. James Church.

I’ve been going first Tuesday of each month to a meeting at St. James Church for two and a half years to talk about how we move the church, how we relocate the people that are there. The more time you spend there, they’re really great people. A lot of them were born here, went away, got educated, spent time in military, had another life, and came back. And they brought back with them all their brainpower and education.

You’ve talked about Chamber transparency in the past. What drew you to look into that?
The question is how much should there be? There should be a line item saying we spent $125,000 on media coverage. This is my personal opinion, but list the firms that get part of that $125,000 and not get into how much you get and how much I get. You can’t get down to that level. You don’t want to dig that far into the weeds where people are going to say, “Why did Condé Nast give them a better rate than somebody else?” They should be transparent on where they spend their money, but a lot of the detail behind that is very iffy. And a lot of the vendors don’t want that detail known, either.

There has to be a balance between what we give out and what we don’t give out. But we should definitely give out more than we do now. Without a doubt. And they know it, too.
Are they willing to work with us? The answer is yes. Have we started talking about it? The answer is yes. Are we going to get somewhere before the contract expires? I’m positive we will. They know what the public wants, and we just have to make sure the public gets what’s reasonable for everybody.

You were also outspoken about the Visioning process…
You think I was outspoken (laughs)? I’m just a quiet New Yorker.

Those exist? (laughs). Do you feel like people were with you on that, on the Visioning process?
When you hire a consultant, who does whatever he or she is doing and gives a report at the end, it’s supposed to leave the community in a better frame of mind than when they started. Whether you like the answer or not. He left the community really aggravated, and that was bad.

He thought the people in Hilton Head Plantation and Port Royal were not this, not that, not the other; he said some really bad things about them. That doesn’t make people happy. I don’t think we covered a lot of things in visioning we should have covered. We didn’t cover what you wanted; we covered whatever the visioning projected that we should talk about.

If you wanted to talk about healthcare, it wasn’t there. If you wanted to talk about parks, it wasn’t there. It wasn’t what everyone wanted to talk about; it was the subjects they wanted to talk about. I think it took away from everything. I think people came away from it with a bad feeling, and nothing really got accomplished. And we spent a lot money.
We’re taking some of the good things from there, and we’re putting it into the town comprehensive plan, which has to be done in a year and a half.

What sort of things?
Just the pillars of things we should look at. We should be in better communication with the public out here; we should have better contact with them—a better feel for them. We should be enhancing our environment, which are things you and I could have thought of by ourselves.

Everyone has to be an environmentalist on Hilton Head Island. We live here. But you can’t be an environmentalist here if part of the island doesn’t have sewers. You can’t be an environmentalist if the garbage isn’t getting picked up or if the garbage is going into the back of the truck with the recyclables. There are lot of things we don’t talk about that we need to talk about if we’re going to be environmentalists. There are homes in Port Royal that don’t have sewers. Spanish Wells doesn’t have sewers at all. Is that being an environmentalist?

Do you think it’s largely just lip service?
No, I think it’s become a bigger project than people thought it was going to be when they talked about it. But it’s those kinds of pillars that are worth holding onto. There should be more community involvement, and there is, but you have to draw the community out. You can’t draw the community out to a meeting at Town Hall. You need the meeting in Port Royal. You need the meeting in Palmetto Hall. You need the meeting in Mitchelville. People aren’t coming out to get to you; you need to come to them. Hilton Head Plantation, for the visioning thing, drew 130 people one night. Port Royal did over 100 one night.

What’s your most controversial opinion?
I think my slogan or message through the whole thing was that island residents should come first. I think that aggravated a lot of people, and I understand that. But I believe that. I believe that when you look at Hilton Head Plantation, Palmetto Hall, Port Royal and Indigo Run, that’s a residential community. You see kids on bikes you see people on walkers; everything is there. When you go to Palmetto Dunes and Shipyard, you see more tourists. We have two different worlds here. We’re not a resort. We’re a residential community that has great resorts.

Yeah, but that’s always been the balance of Hilton Head. It’s a hometown that sort of grew from a resort, but there are still plenty of people making their living from hospitality. There are still plenty of people who can’t live here without the tourists. Do you find yourself trying to find that balance?

No, I think anything we do has to be looked at as, “Are we hurting the residents?” If it’s good for tourism, it’s good. But we shouldn’t be doing it at the expense of the residents. That’s the dividing line. Are we hurting the residents? And it’s a big dividing line.

What would you want your ultimate legacy as mayor of Hilton Head Island to be?
That I treated everybody with respect—that there was civility and dedication among the council and myself. I think respect is the most important thing.

I’d like to the leave the island somewhat like when I first arrived here. But I’d like to leave the beauty it has today, making sure the apple keeps getting polished so people after us enjoy what we had without changing into something we’re not. And if we look in the mirror, we know who we are. We shouldn’t be afraid of who we are.

Many thanks to the Port Royal Clubhouse for so graciously hosting our fireside chat with Mayor McCann.

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