Hilton Head Island Needs Authentic Community Programming – Cheryl Walsh

One of the key objectives outlined in the Hilton Head Island Vision 2030 is to achieve a diverse economy beyond tourism. Unfortunately, it will be difficult for our local community to achieve this objective when tourism fundamentally shapes every aspect of our identity. If we want to achieve a diverse economy beyond tourism, then our local community must strike a new balance between the needs of a community and the needs of a tourist destination. For too long, the scale has been tipped over in favor of the needs of a tourist destination.

If we are serious about creating a new identity, then we need to prioritize authenticity. We need to put an end to our residents being guests at their own events. We need to put an end to our cultural heritage being something that we market to tourists rather than celebrate as a community. We need to put an end to business practices that benefit the tourist industry at the expense of the local environment. These are a few of the things that we need to do if we want to nurture a stronger sense of community on the island.

Take community programming. If we were serious about the needs of the community, we could sacrifice one or two of the large commercial events that we put on for tourists. The money that the town allocates to these events could then be reallocated to hundreds of smaller community events across the island. Here, I am thinking of farmers markets, neighborhood fairs, cultural events, and other local activities. In other words, events organized by residents for residents.

Right now, we do not have a strong slate of community programming that allows residents of all backgrounds to experience the performing talents and cultural heritage of the island. If we wanted to create a new identity, then we need to invest in programs that bring the musicians and artists from the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head and speakers from the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn into the community. These programs need to be authentic. They cannot be shaped by the needs of tourism. They need to be shaped by the needs of the community.

While programs at the Arts Center are wonderful and draw a certain percentage of the population, we need to be honest with ourselves. Many local families with small children and senior citizens on fixed incomes simply cannot afford the cost of admission. That is why we need to take a page from local communities along the coast of New England. There, many small coastal towns have symphonies or town bands that give free open air concerts on the lawn every Friday or Saturday night in the summer months. These are wonderful programs that are a fact of life for the residents.

In my opinion, we could easily replicate such programming on Hilton Head Island. In fact, there are many open air locations on Hilton Head Island – i.e., Shelter Cove, Coligny, the Park – that would be ideal sites for such programs. And, we could easily incorporate our own cultural heritage into these events.

Of course, investing in such programming would be a major shift for our community. We would be taking a step back from the commercialism that defines the Heritage Trail, Gullah Museum, and Sweetgrass basket shops. But, I think that is a necessary move. We cannot accept the status quo any longer. We need a new identity.

Much as Shannon Tanner draws tourists to Shelter Cove year after year, we also need community programming for residents that cements an emotional and intellectual attachment in their minds to a new identity for their community. If we had such programming, we would create more than just a stronger sense of community among existing residents. We would be providing activities that would act as a catalyst to draw new families into our community, especially young families who are looking for somewhere to lay roots. We also would be providing tourists with something that is desperately missing from their experiences on this island. Tourists love to participate in authentic local experiences.

Author: Cheryl Walsh is a local resident of Hilton Head Island. She also a graduate of the University of South Carolina.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors and not their respective organizations. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to pr@islandssociety.org. Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: Robert Du Bois via Flickr CC

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