June 2008

Home Rule: Part V

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: Photography by Anne

On August 5th, 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 Celebrate. That one, historic event helped create the Hilton Head Island we know today, and helped define its future.

Ben Banks, Publisher
When Ben Banks arrived on Hilton Head Island in 1974, the Island Packet (founded in 1970), was published twice weekly (Tuesday and Thursday) with a circulation of 4,621. The Raleigh News and Observer bought the Packet in 1973 and assigned Banks to be publisher the following year. “I think I was the only publisher ever banished to paradise,” Banks said.

“We had the pipeline to the community. You could count on both hands and feet the only people who didn’t subscribe to the Packet. I’d walk in front door of the old Packet building off Pope Avenue on Tuesday or Thursday afternoon, and people would be sitting in the lobby waiting for the paper to come back from Beaufort (where it was printed). Even knowing it was going to be in their mail box the next day, they couldn’t wait that long,” Banks remembered.

Since the job of publisher is the business end of newspapers, Banks immediately immersed himself in the community, meeting and developing relationships with leading business owners, developers, community leaders and newly arrived residents. “I was amazed every day that somebody I met, I found out later, was a very ordinary person who had done very extraordinary things. They were everywhere,” he said. Those relationships would prove valuable a few years later when Banks found himself becoming more deeply involved in the island’s needs for such things as schools and the control of the island’s development. The governmental body the island had to turn to for those “needs” was the Beaufort County Council.

“We had an unbelievable time dealing with Beaufort County. We had one representative, Gordon Craighead. He tried, he really did. I’d give Gordon all the credit in the world. He made a stab at everything he could, but he was unmercifully out voted in every direction, at every turn,” Banks said.

He recalled a joint meeting that included the County Council, the Beaufort Board of Education, and a group of concerned islanders who were there to promote the building of Hilton Head High School. “A number of the same people who worked on the incorporation fought the battle, tooth and tong, for months and months to get the high school built. Several of us ‘testified,’” he said.

“One of the members of County Council interrupted my presentation and said, ‘Ben, do you really think there will ever be enough people on Hilton Head to justify a high school?’ I said, ‘Unquestionable, yes. If the collective body sitting at this table will go look at what the records are today, there are more students who will be eligible to go to high school on Hilton Head Island today (1980) than you’re planning to build a school for,’” Banks recalled. He was right. A short time after the overcrowded Hilton Head High School opened, trailers had to be brought in to be used for additional classrooms.

As the Island Packet’s publisher, Banks became very active in the Chamber of Commerce. As the island’s de facto government, the chamber became the organizing force for incorporation. “It was what a chamber of commerce was supposed to be, but it was so much more than that. It did function as a quasi-government because we simply couldn’t get things through the county. We had a committee that Tim Doughtie headed up that tried to develop a system of directional signs and a measure of signage control. We had committees that dealt with just the ambience of the community. We had committees for everything” Banks said.

When it came to incorporation, those committees sought advice wherever they could get it. Banks recalled a trip down to Florida, with John Curry and Michael Jordan, to meet with Edward “Ebbie” LeMaster, who was working for Arvida Communities in Ponte Vedra. LeMaster had been one of the vice presidents at Sea Pines, knew Beaufort County, and had experience in incorporating a few Arvida developments. “He had seen the Beaufort side of the County Council and we wanted him to tell us what the secrets were. We asked him, ‘How did you get inside the circle, what did you do?’ Unfortunately, there was no answer. He just told us, ‘Keep beating your head against the same wall and maybe the wall will break before you bleed,” Banks said laughing.

“Ebbie was a guy who was very cognizant that developers were in it for profit but were also in it in a way they understood that their profits were only enhanced by the quality of their effort,” said Banks.

One thing LeMaster said stuck with Banks throughout the incorporation process. “He told us, ‘There’s one thing you might think about. As long as the benevolent developer has control of the system, you know what he’s going to do. You may not like it, but you know what he’s going to do. What you have to ask, when you turn it over to the public, as a government: Are they smart enough to do the same thing?’ That is exactly what we went through. And for years afterwards, it stuck with me and still does today. Has any government, Hilton Head Island in this case, been smart enough to deal with the opportunities? I think so,” Banks said.

By the end of the 1970s, Hilton Head Island was changing, Banks recalled, and for some, the change wasn’t for the good. “There were a lot of people who were very unhappy and very dissatisfied with their choice of having come to Hilton Head. There were people who left,” Banks said.

But most stayed, though there were many complaints. “At the newspaper, I guess we, in some ways, sort of shared the quasi-governmental circumstances with the Chamber because we were the place where people vented. I can’t tell you how many times somebody, who was totally irate, would come in my office and just jump up and down because somebody was ‘clearing land over there and they were going to build condominiums’ or whatever it was. There were even bumper stickers that said ‘Beware of the greedy developer: save Hilton Head.’ It got to be almost a battlefront. But the developers, particularly in the plantations, really weren’t doing anything they hadn’t told people they were going to do. In most instances, they were even doing it gentler than they probably had envisioned,” said Banks.

For the majority of residents who moved to Hilton Head, Banks felt they shared a vision of what the island was and should be. Banks said, “Those people were very willing to step up to the plate to help, to do things. Whether they had kids in school or not, they were for schools. Whether they had kids in sports or not, they came to games. Things that needed to be done, they did it. It was a community of friendship and hope and dreams. That’s what it was.”

When the town was officially incorporated in May, 1983, committees went into high gear to make sure everything was set when the new mayor and council took over. Many of the same people who had helped bring about the incorporation continued right on working for the new town. Attorney Michael Jordan, who had done all the legal work on incorporation, and Banks worked up three years of budgets to be presented to the new council. “Michael and I did the budgets in this little room upstairs in the Bethea building on Pope Avenue Mall. We had this giant computer with a very miniature screen. I still think the reason I’m wearing glasses now is because we were poring over that computer in the dark of night until two or three in the morning sometimes,” Banks said.

Budgets mean money, and it fell to Banks and a committee to find it. “I chaired a committee to find out where emerging governments could get money. We knew there were funds available from state and federal sources but we didn’t have a clue of where that was,” recalled Banks. At one of the committee’s first meetings, one of the members raised his hand and told Banks that he was going to Washington where he still had some “connections” and he would see what he could do.

“At our next meeting the committee member asked if someone could help him get some things out of his car. He had two computer fan fold boxes of paper in the trunk. He told us, ‘I still have some friends at HUD,’” Banks said. The boxes contained the entire federal registry of what grants were available to the new town. “[The money] came from hundreds of different sources. When council first sat down, they had over a million dollars in the bank,” Banks continued.

Banks now works with Strecansky & Company, a construction management firm that built USCB’s south campus, the new Technical College of the Lowcountry and many other large projects. But he clearly remembers the people who helped create the new town. “There were more extraordinary people who had unbelievable backgrounds and unbelievable contacts and a broad range of interests who wanted to help. It was like a kid in a candy store if you worked on a newspaper, because we had all of these resources. I could just call somebody up and say, ‘Tell me about so and so.’ Two hours later you were listening to a better story than the last one. It was wonderful.”

“People where were willing to take a soldier’s role to do anything that was necessary to help with the process and push it along. A lot of those people who were involved really had nothing to gain. It was no skin off their back. They were fondly ensconced in their retirement dream; they were financially fine. If they didn’t like it here, they could have loaded up and gone somewhere else overnight. But they chose to put their shoulders to the wheel, and they worked like dogs, together, arm in arm.”

Recalling the heady days leading to incorporation and the first council elections, Banks said, “I think we all realized that it was a pretty historic effort—that it was an effort that had to be done for no personal gain, and it was an effort that, if successful, was going to literally cast the die for what Hilton Head Island was going to be.”

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