Committee hopes to have meaningful discussion on plans for a key island corridor

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Mike Gerrity came to Hilton Head Island five years ago to escape the bottleneck traffic and road rage he’d felt for years commuting into Atlanta from the suburbs.

Yet the work-from-home designer felt that same kind of rage last summer when he’d leave his North End apartment in hopes of a lunchtime break at Coligny Beach.

“I’d get to Sea Pines Circle and wait 10 minutes to get through the circle. Then I’d crawl down to Coligny Circle and beg the parking gods to be kind to me,” Gerrity said. “I shouldn’t be feeling that kind of rage just trying to get around this oasis.”

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Gerrity is far from alone in this sentiment, and Hilton Head officials have been listening.

In February, Town Council created the Circle to Circle Committee (C2CC), a group of residents and local businesspeople charged with developing a master plan proposal for the area from Coligny Circle through the Sea Pines Circle.

“We all feel similar frustrations. It’s important to develop a vision for the long-term future of this corridor,” said Jim Gant, C2CC chairman and a member of the town planning commission, which will oversee the committee’s work. “We can either let individual developers set the agenda or we can create a strong vision and build on the foundation Charles Fraser laid 40 years ago. I’m happy to be part of this approach.”

Gant is a retired IBM executive and headed up the town’s Economic Development Advisory Committee two years ago, which led to the town forming an independent, volunteer-led public corporation charged with identifying and attracting new business to the island.

He sees a lot of parallels between the past work and the charter ahead of them with Circle to Circle Committee.

“It’s about utilizing the resources around us and framing the issues for discussion by our decision makers,” Gant said. “We’re very fortunate to have a wealth of talented professionals that make their home here. Between the 12 on the committee and the many we’re engaging through our forums, we’ll bring strong ideas back to the town.”

After slumping tourism numbers during the recent recession, 2.6 million people visited the island last year — and those numbers are already up nearly 10 percent so far in 2015.

Coligny-Circle02-600The Circle to Circle Committee is charged with developing a vision for the area between the circles and on to the location of the old Food Lion on Palmetto Bay Road, a region that often comes to define the visitor experience for tourists. How do we accommodate more people when we’re already struggling with basic issues such as traffic and parking?

The committee will also be asked for input on projecting future development and making recommendations to address infrastructure needs.

Even before the committee began meeting in late February, it faced some strong criticisms.

First, some residents wondered why the committee selection process was not more open, and why entities such as the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and local businesses were not asked to participate.

“Filling this committee, we were certainly trying to be inclusive as possible,” Gant said. “We wanted a wide range of voices, and I think from land planners to architects to businesspeople to residents, we accomplished that.”

The committee includes former Fraser colleague and developer David Ames, Realtor David Bacheldor, land planner Kyle Theodore, architect Mike Thomas, Coligny Plaza owner Leslie Richardson and Forest Beach POA and Coligny Plaza business owner Jack Daly, Sea Pines CSA representative Joe Kernan, and traffic and transportation specialist Tom Sharp.

Gant emphasized that the work of the committee will largely depend on public input.

“Our first six weekly meetings were largely about educating the committee on the issues, but from there, we spent much of May holding five separate public forums to let the residents tell us what we need to be focused on,” Gant said.

Gant said that citizens were asked at each meeting to consider how to make the area’s unique character continue to thrive, factoring in such issues as pedestrian access issues, business development, the area’s amenities and its appeal to both vacationing families and the resident population.

Can and should the town be involved in pushing refurbishment of outdated commercial space? Are there ways to make the area less dependent on cars?

“It’s all part of the discussion, and we asked folks who attended to write their ideas on sticky notes and stick it to our wall,” Gant said. “Just from our first meeting alone, we collected well over 120 different suggestions.”

The committee hopes to have recommendations for the town by the fourth quarter of this year. June will be spent compiling input from the forums.

“From there, we’ll schedule another public forum to share the common themes that came out of the forums and make sure we heard folks right before we start making recommendations,” Gant said.

At the same time, the town will be undertaking extensive traffic and transportation studies. The committee will spend the latter part of the summer analyzing that data and looking at development projects. From there, it will start to form recommendations.

But two hot-button issues the committee won’t address have some critics of Circle to Circle frustrated. Some wonder why the group hasn’t and won’t weigh in on the University of South Carolina Beaufort campus planned for Office Park Road or the plan to redevelop the town land near Coligny Circle into a park, playground and children’s museum space.

“We were specifically told that these decisions were made by the town before the committee formed and are not part of our scope,” Gant said. “But we’re certainly going to study the impact of these developments on traffic, parking and the growth of the area. And we can make recommendations on how to incorporate those projects and how to build them in a way that helps solve the infrastructure concerns.”

“We know we have a serious traffic problem and that USCB will exacerbate that,” he added. “So, we do our homework and draw some conclusions on how to make this a win-win project.”

Gant, who has lived on the island full time for 11 years and visited regularly for more than 30 years, emphasized that the committee has a specific timeline for action and that it will use the combined expertise of the committee as well as community input to propose solutions.

“The process of governing can be slow, but I think it’s necessary to ask all the right questions and collect the data here,” he said. “We can’t start with solutions. We have to gather knowledge here to really make sure this committee fulfills the mission we were charged with.”

Gerrity said he attended the first forum and left hopeful that Circle to Circle wasn’t going to be and endless circle of inaction.

“I felt like we were heard and that they knew input was key before they took any action,” he said. “They have some talented folks there, but I felt like more than anything, they were listening.”

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