August 2020

Steve Riley: Don’t Call it a Legacy

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.KAT Photography


**Steve Riley does a walk-through with Chris Darnell, project manager of the new Celebration Park. **

Think about where this island was in 1991 when a young Steve Riley first came aboard as community development director. Think about where it was in 1994 when he was named town manager. Now think about where it is now, 26 years later. Think of all the challenges this island has faced, whether it’s digging out after Matthew or weathering the storm of financial crises. Think of how much it has changed and how much of that change has been for the better.

At the center of all that growth and change, you’ll find Steve Riley, a guy who transcended the role of town manager to become the conscience of our island. You don’t see too many town managers, for example, serving as grand marshal at their town’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Riley was bestowed that honor primarily for serving as what parade co-chair Alan Perry called “the face of Hurricane Matthew.” But in the minds of many, the honor had been owed Riley long before the storm.

And when that sash was placed on him, Riley did what Riley does best. He shared credit, saying, “If I have to be the face, fine. But there are literally thousands who have stepped up and brought us to this point.”

When asked about his legacy as he readies for retirement from public life later this year, he’s similarly generous. “There’s nothing that I did—it’s council, staff, citizen volunteers…. I obviously played a role as a spokesperson or band conductor or promoter, whatever you want to call it,” he said, “but it’s always been a team effort.”

Even when asked to define what his legacy might be, he demurred. “I’ve always tried to avoid thinking in terms of legacy,” he said. “I think we’ve had a great team of people who have been able to keep the big picture in mind, protect the essence of the town, and provide a steady hand in what has been an amazing period of time.”
Simply put, the man is entirely too humble to recognize—or at least to publicly acknowledge—the tremendous impact he has had on this island. Break his vast legacy down to individual accomplishments, however, and he will at least (if only begrudgingly) admit to his importance.

One of the big improvements to the island under Riley’s tenure has been the proliferation of parks throughout Hilton Head Island. When he took office, essentially every activity or sport you can think of was held at Barker Field. By the 2000s, there were any number of facilities to absorb the activities of a growing population. “We hit a point where I was co-coaching in six-year-old soccer. The third game was at Barker field, and none of the parents knew where it was because no one had ever been to it,” he recalled. “That showed how far we’ve come. For me, the defining moment of that was pretty cool.”

With the hinges loosened, Riley slowly owned up to his transformative presence on the island, or at the very least the great amount of progress the town has made on his watch. Things like land acquisition jump to mind. “That’s something for future generations,” he said. “It’s really a hallmark of this island.” He’ll also point to the partnership that allowed the Coastal Discovery Museum to move from a small building tucked away at the island’s northern tip to the sprawl of Honey Horn. Or the agreements that brought USCB back onto the island. “To me, that’s transformational,” he said. “That will pay dividends for many years.”

Along with the triumphs have come the challenges, with the first coming while he was still acting town manager. A national boycott due to the Confederate flag flying over the State House in Columbia had boiled over into protests, with Hilton Head Island playing host to sizable rallies both for and against the flag. “We ended up dealing with it pretty well,” he said. “We separated into two peaceful rallies; they generally kept things peaceful in many respects.”

Then there was, of course, the challenge that he met with such famed resolve that it landed him atop a convertible on St. Patrick’s Day: Hurricane Matthew. For Riley, the response to the storm was already battle-tested long before that fateful day in September of 2016.

“We spent all this time over a period of years sending people to help when other towns had disasters, studying lessons learned,” Riley said. From urban search and rescue to people on the financial and development side, Hilton Head Island’s team assisted countless towns in recovery, while learning valuable lessons they would take home. “When the whole team came together after Matthew, after all those years and all those lessons, we made the plan work.”

He’s also faced the challenge of Hilton Head Island’s infrastructure catching up to its explosive growth during his tenure, with the latest moves representing a garden he’s planting whose blooms he may never see. “(Expansion at) the 278 corridor, I’ve been saying for 20 years we need to plan for that,” he said. “We’re finally doing that study, and that’s a crucial piece of infrastructure for the future. The devil will be in the details, but that’s for someone else.”

Who that someone else may be, Riley doesn’t know. He’s stayed actively out of the search for a replacement. Other than putting out a few names, he’s stepped back to allow the town to make its own selection and for the next town manager to establish his or her own legacy.

“We’re finishing the comp plan, which started with the vision process … there’s the parks plan. I think there are some great opportunities” he said. “It’s the perfect time to exit. Here’s the plan, here are some ideas, but take this blueprint and put your mark on it. I’ve helped set you up, now take it and run with it.”

And when that day comes, you’ll find Steve Riley quietly stepping away from the role he’s redefined for decades. But don’t be surprised if you still see him around Hilton Head Island.

“I’m too hyper to do nothing,” he said. “I’d like to continue to be productive in some way but out of the limelight.”

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