Head On

Hilton Head Island enjoys a worldwide reputation as a fabulous place to visit, and recently a project to enhance our residents’ quality of life shined a national spotlight on us too. The town, in partnership with the Hilton Head Island Public Service District (PSD) and the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry’s Project SAFE (Sewer Access for Everyone), well deserve this recognition for ensuring all Hilton Head Islanders have access to sanitary sewer.

Perhaps a public sanitary sewer system is less glamorous than 12 miles of pristine beaches, but it is a very real necessity for islanders. An inadequate system impacts our environment and touches upon matters of parity and social justice stemming from the island’s rapid development. During the past two and a half years, the partnership between the town, the PSD and the Community Foundation has made tremendous strides toward tackling the issue. Our efforts ensure that native islanders and other low- to moderate-income families who lack sewer access are properly connected to this essential service.

Last year, our partnership was among 10 winners of the 2017 Secretary’s Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnership, presented by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Council of Foundations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was another recipient. The award recognizes the partnership process and its impact as a community strategy to enhance the quality of life for low- and moderate-income residents across the nation in urban, suburban and rural settings. We should all be proud that our sanitary sewer initiative was selected as an award-winning example.

Just recently, HUD and the Council of Foundations launched another initiative, again recognizing our partnership. A peer engagement teleconference platform was established to educate philanthropic partners on the successes of different initiatives. Ours was the very first to be showcased. Denise Spencer, president and CEO of the Community Foundation, Pete Nardi, general manager of the PSD, and I presented details of our collaborative efforts. It is quite an honor to know that other organizations will refer to our partnership as a model of excellence for their communities.

Hilton Head Island has long dealt with sanitary sewer problems. Not only is it an environmental issue, but it is certainly a people issue. Our fellow islanders lacking sewer had to decide, based on weather conditions, if they should wash their clothes and dishes or take a shower. A wrong decision resulted in sewage backup. Our town committed to make significant progress. A five-year master plan identified areas where infrastructure was needed. Everyone agreed to step up and participate in the costs: $10 million from the town and $1.5 million from the PSD to cover the costs of installing sewer lines and building pump stations, and $3 million from the Community Foundation to provide grants to qualified low- and moderate-income property owners to connect. Finally, through the work of a group of native islanders, who became our grassroots partners, we secured easements needed for the installation of the infrastructure—120 of them to date, at no cost to the town.

Where do we stand and what are our results? The money needed from the town to complete the initiative is part of the fiscal year 2019 budget. To date, 53 homes of potentially 249 that qualify have connected to the system. Improved lives. A safer environment. A success to share and inspire other communities near and far to make a name for themselves by tackling tough issues head-on.

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