It’s springtime in Port Royal

By Bill Rauch

With the dozen-years-in-the-making, the Port of Port Royal sale now scheduled to close in June, and with Parris Island’s centennial celebration kicking off in May, the Town of Port Royal has a lot to look forward to. Taken together, however, the steps the town has taken over the past few years are just as impressive.

Van Willis, Town Manager
Van Willis, Town Manager

Last month’s Bands, Brews and BBQ Festival that attracted over a thousand participants as a fundraiser for The Friends of Caroline Hospice is a reminder of all the music events the town hosts these days: the Soft Shell Crab Festival in April, the concert series on alternate Saturday summer evenings, and the Oktoberfest for starters.

When sequestration ended Parris Island’s longstanding July 4th fireworks show, who was standing by to pick it up? Port Royal.

What’s the 12th safest city in South Carolina today, according to the www.safewise.com website? Port Royal. The only other Beaufort County municipality on www.safewise.com’s list is Bluffton at #31.

Who harvested the Farmer’s Market when its Beaufort lease was up? Who reeled in The Maritime Center? Who rebranded a string of drainage ponds into a nature tourism destination? Who got to yes with Greg Parker and landed the cheapest gas around? Who’s got the friendliest website that features the funkiest virtual tour of their town?

Yup. All that in little Port Royal… except the town’s not so little anymore.

Port Royal’s heritage may be shrimpers, stevedores, and scalawags, but that was then. Today the shops and cafes along Paris Avenue play host to bankers, builders and well-heeled retirees by the bushel. That’s not to say the town has lost altogether its cool painters and poets in flip-flops and patched cut-offs personna. But there are some conspicuously well-pressed new layers in today’s demographic.

Over the past decade under the firm hand of Town Manager Van Willis and with the steady support of Mayor Sam Murray and the Port Royal Town Council, Port Royal has created excitement. And excitement is the best thing there is for business. This didn’t just happen. Port Royal public policy made it happen. And it’s still happening.

The town’s new “cool, coastal, far from ordinary” marketing campaign is a recent case in point. “That was Van’s idea,” Town Councilman Joe Lee told The Island News last week. “He’s very progressive in the area of marketing.”

Port Royal’s not just doing billboards and t-shirts. Nor are they sitting back and waiting for the Chamber of Commerce to do all their lifting. The town produces a show on WHHI that markets Port Royal as a daytrip for Hilton Head’s visitors, and they contribute regularly to the 843 TV series that can be found on YouTube.

But Willis isn’t just a marketer, he runs a tight town hall too. “I take a proposal to Beaufort,” a local builder observed to The Island News recently, “and the planners there say ‘Hold it right there. We’re going to need to see these three studies you’ll need to commission from an engineer, an architect and an environmental engineer. Then come back with your lawyer and we’ll make a determination.’ I take a proposal to Port Royal and [Port Royal Town Planner] Linda Bridges says, ‘Thank you for bringing this in. There are three ways we can go forward with this. Let’s go through them.’ It’s night and day.”

With Liberty Point, Shadow Moss, Ashton Point and more new development out towards Habersham now filling up, and with in-fill development steadily increasing densities in Port Royal’s Old Village section, there’s no disputing that Port Royal is growing. The town’s 2010 population was 10,687, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, up from 2,985 in 1990. Business license fee revenues are up sharply too.

“You know,” Beaufort County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville observed last week, “Van’s head’s just in the right place. He’s an aggressive advocate for the town. But he can be patient when he needs to be patient. Look at the port.”

When the port redevelopment deal closes it will green light a new marina on Battery Creek just south of Dockside, as many as 250,000 square feet of new commercial space, and 425 new residential units too, according to the most recent PUD documents.

“When we heard about [former Beaufort City Manager] Scott Dadson’s departure from Beaufort,” Town Councilman Joe Lee recounted sternly last week, “the first thing we did was call up [Beaufort Mayor] Billy Keyserling and say ‘Keep your hands off Van.’”

A reporter, publisher, ghostwriter and author, Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008.

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