December 2014

Indiana Success: A Story Bubbles Up on Hilton Head Island

Author: Brad Bejamin

Hilton Head Island has a new mayor, and while it may seem to most local residents as an unexpected and sudden shift in the winds of island politics, the rumblings that erupted in an overwhelming 65 to 35 percent runoff on Tuesday, November 18 were actually being stirred for more than two years.

Mayor-elect David Bennett, formerly the Town’s Planning Commissioner, is a product of Carmel, Indiana, where he watched the city’s internationally respected five-term mayor, Jim Brainard, transform a crumbling town into a city that was recently recognized by CNN Money as the number one city in America to live (population 50,000-300,000).

“Mayor Brainard was my hero in many ways,” said Bennett, whose campaign was built on the theme, “We Can Do Better.”

Bennett has pointed to Brainard’s often quoted comment about energizing his city’s economy: “Our city has to get out of the mode that our competition is a half an hour down the road. It really isn’t. It’s everywhere around the globe today. We really need to work harder on attracting good jobs here. And I think the way we can do that is by creating really special features to our city.”

Bennett notes that Carmel today has some of the lowest taxes anywhere in the United States, because it has attracted a plethora of business investment that pays the lion’s share of the tax burden.
A vision has been brewing.

As it turns out, Bennett’s experiences in Carmel melded beautifully with the ideals of a small cadre of Hilton Head Islanders who had been working within the Greater Island Council and an outlier luncheon group from the 2010 Hilton Head Island Mayor’s Vision Task Force. As Jack Alderman of the Greater Island Council explained, “There was a crying need for an island-wide vision to guide planning decisions outside the gated communities.” Alderman, Gail Quick and others on the council began sharing their thoughts with David Ames and his luncheon partners from the Vision Task Force.

Quick suggested that Bennett, with whom she had been working on the Hilton Head Planning Commission, might be an attractive “fresh face” who could effectively articulate the ideals of creating a town that would not only be a world class tourist destination, but also a world class livable community.

Getting Bennett elected however, would be the biggest hurdle, and quite frankly, as members of the group—now including Alex Brown, Jim Collett, Marty Gleason and John Joseph—conceded, it would be an almost impossible uphill battle because of Bennett’s lack of name recognition within the community.
As one member of the group admitted, “We weren’t really expecting to win against an incumbent mayor, but we thought at least we could get some of our ideas discussed in an open, public forum. Plus, time was incredibly short. We only had seven weeks until the general election.”

Ames approached a long-term friend, Tom Gardo, president of Denarius Group, a Hilton Head-based public relations, marketing and issues management firm, to take on the task of putting a campaign together. Gardo, who had managed more than two dozen area political campaigns since the early 1980s, was skeptical because of Bennett’s lack of name recognition and the short window until the November 4 general election. But, he said he would give it his best shot.

The rest is history, and potentially a new direction of the Town of Hilton Head Island. Bennett achieved a near tie in the general election and went on to win with 5,837 votes to Laughlin’s 3,151 in the runoff.
“We were thrilled to discover that a lot more people than we had imagined felt just like we did,” Alderman said. “Hilton Head Island can do better!”

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