February 2008

A Town Is Born

Author: Paul deVere

How Home Rule Began on Hilton Head Island.

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.

Ben Racusin, the first mayor of Hilton Head Island
Imagine it. Charleston, South Carolina, founded 1680, incorporated 1783. Savannah, Georgia: founded 1733, incorporated, 1789. Hilton Head Island, “founded,” 1956, incorporated 1983.

Imagine it. Being there on the first day, at the beginning of “home rule” for Hilton Head Island. As Ben Racusin, the island’s first mayor, said in a recent interview, “We needed greater impact in our own destiny than we were getting from Beaufort County.”

Suggesting that Hilton Head Island was “founded” by Charles Fraser and Sea Pines Plantation in 1956 might be offensive, and rightly so, to those who, for generations, had made the island home. Hilton Head was extraordinarily rich in culture and history before the young lawyer from Georgia brought his grand development scheme to the remote, South Carolina barrier island. But Fraser brought people. And money. And unprecedented ideas. And he brought all this to one of the poorest, traditional, truly Southern counties in the U.S.

For Beaufort County, Fraser’s idea to create a community of like-minded people who believed in a true balance between the natural and man-made was, at best, an anomaly and, at worst, plain crazy. Yet the concept caught on and people did come. But different people than Beaufort County was used to. “Northern” people. People like Ben and Helen Racusin. “Helen had a colleague she worked with in Washington. He and his wife came back from a vacation and they said, ‘We found the most wonderful place, it’s called Hilton Head. You’ve really got to see this place,’” Racusin said.

The Racusins visited the island in 1967 and bought a lot within 48 hours. They built their retirement home in Sea Pines in 1970. “Helen retired early, in June of 1970, and came down to get the house in order. I retired in January of 1971 and took up residence. The rest is history,” Racusin laughed. He was hoping to improve his golf game. Little did he suspect he would become a major player in what has become one of the most celebrated communities in the world.

The Racusins were, in some respects, typical residents of the new community in Sea Pines. Prior to their arrival, island residents included high government and corporate officials, artists, military officers, advertising executives, business owners and neophyte entrepreneurs (before most of the world knew how to spell “entrepreneur”).

In 1956, Hilton Head Island—Sea Pines—represented two percent of the tax base of Beaufort County. Hilton Head was an oddity for Beaufort County commissioners. The county economy was agrarian-based. Either you were a land owner or you weren’t. From Sea Island cotton in the late 1700s to cotton, truck farming, fishing and trees in the 1950s, the citizens of Beaufort County made money on what the soil and the sea (and hard work) could produce. Simple. Beaufort County politics had been in place for generations. Hilton Head, as Michael Danielson described in his book, Profits and Politics in Paradise, was an “exotic curiosity” for the council and county.

About the time both Racusins were wrapping up successful careers with the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington and dreaming of their beautiful island, County Council and Hilton Head, specifically Sea Pines—which had little political clout—were about to do battle. As Danielson wrote, “The fight was fundamentally about what kind of an economy would prevail in southern Beaufort County.”

In 1969, County Council wanted an industrial economy, even though Hilton Head development accounted for about 40 percent of the property taxes collected by the county. The industry the council selected, behind closed doors, could not have been worse: a $100 million BASF chemical complex on the shores of Victoria Bluff (now Colleton River Plantation). “At stake was the last relatively unpolluted estuary system on the East Coast,” Danielson wrote. Hilton Head and its beaches and private communities were, more or less, “down stream.”

The Hilton Head Island Community Association was formed to examine, then fight the proposed complex. One of the battle cries was “BASF… Bad Air, Sick Fish.” A combination of the Association’s local organization, political efforts in Washington, DC and the economy, made the chemical giant go away.

Almost on the heels of BASF’s exit, Brown & Root, a division of Halliburton, wanted to build offshore oil platforms at Victoria Bluff. Chicago Bridge & Iron (CBI) wanted to move in next door to build ten-story tall liquefied natural gas shipping spheres. The Association and other concerned citizens “south of the Broad” (i.e., southern Beaufort County) fought those projects off, too.

Ben Racusin joined the Association in 1972. “CBI was the concern back then. We had been here about a year. The night I joined they made me president,” Racusin said. There already had been talk of Hilton Head Island becoming a town, but state rules, to say nothing about the lack of support from the county, would not allow it.

“The genesis of my getting involved [with the incorporation of the island] was when the bridge was knocked out in 1974,” Racusin said. The Association president who succeeded him was off the island so Racusin was asked to come to a meeting with the state’s crisis management director. “He said, ‘Boy am I glad to meet you.’ I asked him why was that. He said ‘Well, whenever we come to a place that’s had a crisis, we work with the existing government. But here on Hilton Head, there is no existing government. When I asked for someone to act as liaison with the community, your name topped the list.’ So for the next seven weeks we worked with engineers to repair the damage but that phrase, ‘working with the existing government’ stuck in my mind,” said Racusin.

Now jump ahead to1981. For years, various developers had been trying to get Beaufort County to adopt zoning and development restrictions for the island so developments in non-gated communities would be in keeping with the spirit and “look” for which Hilton Head was becoming famous. Nothing came of those appeals.

Then, while the Chamber of Commerce was drumming up support for incorporation, U.S. Capital Corporation built Four Seasons Resort with prefabricated condominiums. Island residents referred to the development as “stack-a-shacks.” The development definitely was not “Hilton Head Island.” The die was cast. If Beaufort County could not control development, it was time for the citizens of that “exotic curiosity” to do it themselves.

In May, 1983, a referendum of incorporation was passed by over 60 percent of the votes cast. Asked by a group of influential islanders, John Curry decided to run for mayor. Another group asked Racusin.

“I told them, ‘No, I really don’t want to do it,” Racusin said. “Helen and I had a little dog at the time, a Schnauzer named Dee Dee. Holding a cookie in our hands, we’d trained her to roll over and play dead. So when this group insisted I run for the job, I said we should let Dee Dee decide. So I asked, ‘Dee Dee what would you rather be, mayor of the town of Hilton Head Island or a dead dog?’ I held of the cookie up and down she went,” Racusin said. The group did not accept Dee Dee’s decision.

“I told John [Curry], nobody should run unopposed. You never know if people’s voices are being heard. I said whichever of us is elected I think we’ll be in good hands in terms of working this thing out. Fortunately or unfortunately, however you look at it, I won,” said Racusin.

“It was humbling. We had a tremendous job to do, to get those building blocks in place. It was a hard working group. I think we all realized what were doing was unique,” Racusin said. On August 5, 1983, Racusin and his council took their seats and a town was born.

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