March 2008

A Town Is Born: Part II

Author: Paul deVere

On August 5, 2008, Hilton Head Island will celebrate 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.

John Curry, mayoral candidate, town saver
For all his many accomplishments, both as a businessman and loyal citizen of Hilton Head Island, he will always be remembered as the person who kept Hilton Head Island together during the dark days of the 1986 bankruptcy of Hilton Head Holdings, then parent company of Sea Pines and several other island properties. Appointed bankruptcy trustee by U.S. District Judge Sol Blatt, Jr., in 1986, Curry managed to clean up the mess and put the new town on a more solid footing.

But all that was in the future. In 1983, Curry ran for mayor of the newly incorporated Town of Hilton Head Island.

“I lost dramatically,” Curry said with a laugh. “After the election, everyone told me, ‘I don’t know why you lost. I voted for you.’ In fact, I never met anybody who voted against me except my wife. She [Valerie] said, ‘I’m going to vote for Ben [Racusin] because he ought to be mayor.’”

“Ben and I were close friends. We said no bumper stickers, that sort of thing. It was a very friendly contest,” Curry recalled.

In fact, Racusin and Curry worked tirelessly together for years, laying the foundation for incorporation. “I ran for mayor because no one had stepped forward. Then Ben entered. He was on a white horse as a retiree while I was a bad developer money grubber,” Curry said, laughing again.

When it came to those who favored incorporation, there were fundamentally two camps: those who wanted to control growth, mostly retirees, and those who wanted to control how the island was growing. By 1983, developers on Hilton Head had a very bad name. And anyone involved in increasing tourism wasn’t far behind. Curry was involved in both.

“Fear of double taxation, [paying both county and town taxes] sort of caused the lack of enthusiasm for incorporation until two things happened. One, which is generally publicized: the Four Seasons was built, which created the urgency to have local zoning. There was a lesser issue, which was key to my involvement. The accommodations tax bill was going to pass, and the disbursement of those funds was left to the most local level of government, as it is today. In other words, for unincorporated areas, it’s the county,” Curry said.

Curry and several other people drafted the “bed tax” bill. “We put in there the monies must be spent promoting the area where the taxes were collected, but it didn’t have any real teeth. We knew that was going to grow into a significant amount of money. Ninety percent of Beaufort County’s would be from Hilton Head Island, so that was a secondary incentive to get incorporation passed,” he said.

When John Curry came to the island in 1973 as executive vice president of Sea Pines Resort, he was a natural fit. He came to Sea Pines from the Walt Disney Company, where he was director of hotels. He coordinated the design, development, and operations of the Polynesian and Contemporary hotels at the very young Disney World. “It was always Walt’s demand that we get an environment that would let us do what we wanted to do. We had to get a lot of unique things done,” Curry remembered about his time with the Disney. “Walt said, ‘Don’t commit to build anything until you’ve got everything in place, until the government agrees. For example, you can have one liquor license for the whole place [Disney World], and you can have unique laws specific to Disney because we are that important to them.’”

But it was the small community at Yosemite National Park where Curry grew up and worked at a resort started by his grandparents in 1899. He compared Hilton Head Island in 1973 to his experiences at Yosemite. “It was a very small community, especially in the winter. So we had to accomplish what was to be done on our own,” Curry said.

“People who have moved here after the 1980s ask me how I got so involved. Well, [like Yosemite] there was no alternative. There were 2,700 people on the island when we moved here. So if you wanted to improve the Montessori school, you got a bucket of paint and a brush and went down and painted. If you wanted a booth at the Heritage, you got a bunch of guys together and you built it. Everything was done by volunteers,” Curry recalled.

At that time, Curry explained, the Chamber of Commerce was very small and the “De facto” government for the island. Each major developer had a director on the Chamber. Curry was the director for Sea Pines. “We formed the Visitors and Convention Bureau. That led to my being sort of involved in all things governmental.”

By 1980, Curry was president of the chamber. “We were serious about incorporation,” he said. Incorporation was on the minds of some islanders starting about 1970, to “reign in growth,” as Michael Danielson wrote in his book, Profits and Politics in Paradise: The Development of Hilton Head Island. In fact, there was a proposal by Forest Beach residents to incorporate just that part of the island that year. But the island could not meet the state’s requirement when it came to forming a municipality. The reason: too few people. It was a classic “Catch 22.” To control growth, the island had to grow. It wasn’t until 1980 that the island met legal state requirements in terms of population.

When Curry became chamber president, the island he had moved to in 1973 had changed dramatically. In 1980, the island population was over 11,000. The number of businesses on the island had grown from about 120 to 850. Tourism exploded in that decade, from a little over 70,000 visitors to almost 650,000. Those residents who moved to a beautiful island for a nice, quiet retirement and low taxes saw hundred of condos squeezed onto a few acres of land. While the gated communities, like Sea Pines, had covenants and restrictions, the un-gated portions of the island were wide open to developers. “It was so discouraging before then [incorporation] to try and get basically an agrarian county to be willing to impose restrictions on anybody. Understandably, they [the Beaufort County Council] said if you own a piece of ground, you ought to be able to do what you want with it,” Curry said. Of course, that wasn’t what Curry or the resorts and businesses dependent on development and tourism wanted. “There had to be some control over the un-gated part of the island or the island wouldn’t succeed. So incorporation was a real accomplishment,” Curry said.

In 1976, Curry left Sea Pines to form Sand Dollar Management, a resort management company with properties in South and North Carolina, and Florida. Curry did all he could, both personally and professionally, to help Hilton Head Island become a year-round vacation destination and, at the same time, maintain the natural beauty and sense of place that drew so many people to its shores. His cheerleading for his new hometown was both a blessing (for his business) and a curse (his run for mayor).

While Curry says the Hilton Head of today is very different than when he arrived 35 years ago, he also says, “It’s wonderful. When we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sea Pines [2006], it caused me to go back and look at the original master plan. There are some things that are of concern, the huge size of houses because of the price of land, that sort of thing. But that aside, Sea Pines was what it was supposed to be and it looks like it will be 20 years from now. I think that’s true of the other gated communities, because they followed that lead in covenants and restrictions.”

“Then the town has done a wonderful job,” he continued. “They looked at places like Nantucket and saw what worked and what didn’t work. This buying up land to cancel out development is a wonderful thing. I would bet that 20 years from now the island will be a better place than it is today. I see nothing but a bright future.”

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