April 2008

A Town is Born: Part 3

Author: Paul deVere

On August 5, 2008, Hilton Head Island will be celebrating its 25th “birthday” as an incorporated municipality—a town. Why becoming a town was so crucial and interviews of those who helped make it happen will be the subject of several articles in CH2. That one, historic event helped create the Hilton Head Island we know today, and helped define its future.

Michael L. Jordan, the Town of Hilton Head Island’s first attorney—and then some

If you’re going to create a new town, you’re going to need a very good lawyer—one with a great deal of patience. For the Town of Hilton Head Island, Michael L. Jordan was that lawyer. In 1983, when South Carolina’s Secretary of State signed off on the incorporation papers (March), to the vote for incorporation (May), to the election of the mayor and town council (August), Michael Jordan was a very busy man.

“I chaired the legal committee that drafted the first laws for the town. On the first day we presented to the town council that basically here are all the laws you have to adopt. We spent a week going through each chapter,” he said, “and a big chunk of those laws are probably still on the books. They were the basic laws, like when council meetings are held, what time of the day are they going to be, who has the authority to do this, all the basic government structure. We borrowed, begged stole and wrote and modified everything we could find. Then we had another committee to find a town hall—a place to be. We had a furniture committee; we needed desks,” Jordan said with a big smile.

But his journey to those historic months when the town came into being started almost the moment Jordan arrived on Hilton Head in 1973. When young attorney Michael Jordan and his wife, Virginia, moved to Hilton Head, the island was, in many respects, as young as they were. “I don’t think we had our first stop light yet,” Jordan said.

The Jordans worked for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. Michael’s parents had “discovered” Hilton Head in 1970 and, in 1971, bought a home here. The younger Jordans soon followed suit. “It took us a couple more vacations (to Hilton Head), and we asked ourselves, ‘Why do we want keep working for Ford in Detroit?’” Jordan remembered.

Instead of occupying an office in a 50-story skyscraper in Detroit or Chicago (another choice), Jordan chose to join another young attorney on the island, Bill Bethea, Jr., and set up shop. The firm Bethea, Jordan, and Griffin, officially formed in 1974, became one of the leading law firms on the island and in the State of South Carolina. “Bill and I were together until he retired last year,” Jordan said. Bethea Jordan and Griffin has now merged with McNair law firm.

“As soon as I got here, I got involved with the Jaycees. We used to meet in the old volunteer firehouse on Cordillo Parkway. The bridge went out in 1974. Everybody was involved trying to set up this ferry service to try to get people back and forth,” Jordan said. At that time, Hilton Head had a swing bridge to get the approximately 6,000 residents and 200,000 visitors on and off the island. It was hit by a barge and was out of commission for six weeks, forcing everyone to use a pontoon bridge, built by the Army Corps of Engineers. “At that point, discussions were going on about how we should be, what we should do, how we could control our lives a little bit better,” Jordan recalled.

Jordan remembered another incident about the bridge shortly after he arrived. “We had our offices in the old People’s Bank building. That’s when Pope Avenue was a two lane road. One day the bank was robbed. Earl Adams was the deputy sheriff. He lived in Bluffton, but he was our deputy sheriff. He was the only guy south of the Broad River. He came to the bank, found out what had happened and said he’d take care of it. He didn’t show any kind of urgency to do anything. He just called the bridge tender and said, ‘Open the bridge.’ Then he got in his patrol car and moseyed up to the bridge. There was the bank robber, waiting in line to cross.”

Michael Jordan in the early ’80’s, after moving to Hilton Head.

While there had been talk about incorporating Hilton Head since the 1960s, the bridge incident slowly started to get the incorporation ball rolling. The Hilton Head Island Community Association, a group of concerned residents, with the help of the Chamber of Commerce, had contracted with Horace Flemming, a professor from Clemson University, to do two different studies about the whole concept of governance options. Jordan said, “There was this group of us that kept pushing this discussion forward. Sometimes it was largely academic, and sometimes very practical. Things were happening that were out of our control. The county had a rudimentary subdivision ordinance. It dealt with how small you could divide the lots. There was nothing about ambience (of a community) or how it all fits together or how it maintains an image or any of that. The county really didn’t want to have anything to do with us.”

Jordan worked for several years to help find a way for the island to get “home rule,” working directly with Flemming on the various approaches. By 1982, the whole idea of control of the island started boiling over. “The whole character of development started to push forward in the early ’80s,” Jordan said. “Some big chunks of land got out of control of the major ‘benevolent’ developers, and all of a sudden you started to see the high rise trailer parks—the stack-a-shacks. They just started mushrooming, and it was ultimately that type of development that pushed everybody into acting.”

The “benevolent developers” Jordan referred to were people like the visionary Charles Fraser, who created Sea Pines Resort and set the tone for the entire island, and Fred Hack, who appreciated the need to control and maintain the Hilton Head “look.”

“Prior to 1980 major businesses and developers who came to the island lived here. Management all lived here. They supported all the things that needed to happen But in the early ’80s, a couple of profiteers—non-resident developers—came in with no vision of what Hilton Head was or what it should be. Their only vision was, ‘We’re going to come in and make a buck and leave.’ They did not contribute anything to the community,” Jordan explained.

The final straw came one day when dozens of trucks started coming over the bridge. “You would see these big, mobile home trailers with the drapes hanging in the windows, and they would be coming across the bridge every day, one after the other. A crane would literally stack them, one on top of the other. That’s what Hilton Head Island was becoming, and the scene was unacceptable to substantially everybody,” said Jordan.

As the desire for self government grew, Jordan became more and more involved. He served on a variety of committees, all aimed at figuring out what kind of structure the local government would take. As a member of the Committee on Self-Government Options, he helped create the “Feasibility Study,” which was a review of all the incorporation issues and the blueprint for the new town.

In an unpublished manuscript titled “Organizing Local Government: The Hilton Head Island Experience,” written by Jordan and Clemson’s Horace Flemming, the authors recounted the day they had been waiting for.

“On March 1, 1983, John Curry, Tom Baker, Ben Banks and Michael Jordan presented the “Feasibility Study,” the petitions, the other supporting documents, and the required filing fee of $600 to the Secretary of State for the State of South Carolina. The two years of work of the Committee on Self-Government Options was complete—the task was finished.”

Jordan observed that the early ’80s was the “window” of change on the island that both provided both “get the money and run” type development on Hilton Head and a chance for the island to reaffirm the quality of life concerns that were shared by most residents. “I think the people that came in the early ’70s were very concerned about the quality of life [on Hilton Head] and wanted to make sure it was protected and improved. I also think the people coming here today have exactly the same feeling. Look at the issues we’re talking about, the quality of water in the May River, the dredging out of Harbour Town marina, the airport. You may be on one side or the other, but everybody’s very concerned about it,” said Jordan.

Jordan said that the greatest action the town has taken, because of incorporation, is the land acquisition program. He thinks it points to a bright future. “Drive around the mall here. Look at Veterans Memorial Park and the adjacent park, what they’re doing at Honey Horn and the ball fields they built. That decision, early on, that the town had to get that property, was just a fabulous decision that got made and implemented,” Jordan said, adding, “Just think, 100 years from now, people will still be able to enjoy all those things.”

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