When Harry Williams, 74, moved to the Lowcountry from New Jersey it took him three months to realize he was living in the City of Hardeeville. He had a Bluffton ZIP code in the Sun City development. A neighbor suggested he run for a Hardeeville city council seat and Williams said, “I can’t run for a council seat (I’m) in Bluffton.” But he could and he did.
And he won.
That was nine years ago. He joined the council in 2015 and became mayor a year later. He’s held the position ever since. Williams said Friday he won’t seek a third term in November.
During his eight years, he’s helped create a vision for Hardeeville. If it pans out, the city will become equally or more attractive than the neighboring Okatie, Bluffton and Hilton Head areas. His vision will change the landscape of the Lowcountry and draw even more people to the area.
Williams is crafting the future for the city that was incorporated in 1911, in part by helping design master plans with developers that prioritizes quality of life. Paying for the plan includes impact fees to cover the costs of roads or public services like police and fire departments. The plan also provides incentives to young families to move into these developments in the city. Simultaneously, businesses are being lured with industrial space at Riverport Commerce Park. Williams said this will create jobs and provide needed funding for Jasper County schools. In recent testing results, Hardeeville schools scored slightly lower than neighboring Beaufort County schools. This is a potential obstacle to families with school-aged children moving to the area. In South Carolina primary homeowners are exempt from school operation taxes. Instead, much of the funding comes from local sales and use taxes.
Harry Williams, mayor of Hardeeville, sits down for an interview on Jan. 5, 2024 to talk about the future growth of the city in council chambers at city hall. Williams has decided that he will not seek to run for another term as mayor.
The business park’s first tenant was Home Depot in 2021 and it has only grown since then. In the past 18 months, the city has approved close to 15 million square feet of warehousing, according to Williams. The ball has started rolling on commercial and industrial development, and residential development is at a turning point with Hoyer Investment Company Land’s purchase of the Morgan Tract along U.S. Route 278.
It marked the acquisition of Hardeeville’s last major residential tract, according to Williams. Now, the focus will shift from developers acquiring land to determining what will be done on those parcels. Most of the tract’s Planned Development Districts, which are “general zoning and use master plans”, were created in 2006. More detailed zoning requirements will be a push and pull between the developers and the city council.
“(The developers) come forward with different plans and they present it to the city and then negotiations start happening,” Williams said. “(The plans) are revised to reflect the new conditions of the current Hardeeville.”
By next year Williams expects to be on the golf course instead of at city hall, but the coming years will test whether the framework he helped put into place will hold up over time. And time is already showing population growth and highway developments. From 2020 to 2022 the U.S. Census estimated Hardeeville’s population grew 37% from 7,473 to 10,283. Construction for long-awaited Exit 3 off I-95 and widening of the first nine miles of the highway is expected to start in 2025 and be completed by 2028, according to Williams.
There’s no question that Hardeeville is gaining steam. The question is where is it going?
For Williams it’s a place where residents have a strong sense of community: something he’s a little jealous of Bluffton for and couldn’t say for himself less than a decade ago.
These days it’s hard to believe there was a point Williams didn’t know he was a Hardeeville resident.
“(It’s) all in the effort to try to bring people (here) and to be proud of the community,” he said. “A good community will attract good investors. And the good investors will build good quality products: residential, commercial, and industrial.”
The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette sat down with Williams to understand what he believed the future of Hardeeville would be and how its going to get there. Answers are edited for brevity and clarity.
Island Packet: What is happening with the Riverport Commerce Park?
Harry Williams: In the past 18 months, we approved close to 15 million square feet of warehousing, and that helps serve a couple of things. The Port of Savannah is the second largest port in the country now. It is booming, as well as the recent announcement of the Hyundai plant. That’s only 30 miles from the southern tip of our city where our industrial complex is going. A lot of the complex will end up being rented to support industries and that’s why that southern part is continuing to boom. We already have six buildings totaling a million and a half square feet that are almost finished or finished.
These are four of the soon to be built 10 buildings that will eventually total more than 4.2 million square-feet of Class A industrial Park space at Riverport Commerce Park as photographed on Jan. 5, 2024 in Jasper County, S.C. The park is located less than 10 miles from Georgia Ports Authority Port of Savannah.
That industrial complex will bring new and better paying jobs. Jasper County has been historically one of the poorest counties in the country, not just in the state in the country.
IP: How will the widening of I-95 and Exit 3 impact Hardeeville?
HW: That’s going to bring new access, particularly to industrial people who want to invest in our city because it makes it that much easier. As well as what happens around any interchange is the absolute boom of commercial interests: hotels, restaurants, that kind of commercial interest, which, helps the schools as well as the county and city. Over the next decade, Exit 3 is going to provide a tremendous boost to the economy of the whole county.
IP:Traffic is already bad. What about traffic during construction?
HW: From 2025 to 2028, there’s going to be a lot of traffic going through the City of Hardeeville. There’s going to be certain congestion. You don’t fix the problem without a little bit of pain, and we’re all going to feel a little bit of pain as the road is getting done. The end product will be worth the pain.
A semi-tractor trailer passes underneath the Purrysburg Road overpass on Monday as it travels northbound on Interstate 95 into Hardeeville town limits. This is the site where the developer of River Port Business Park, City of Hardeeville and Jasper County want a new interchange that will connect to U.S. 17 and U.S. 321 in Jasper County.
IP: We’re talking a lot about industrial jobs. Will new community development be geared towards people working there?
HW: Before this point, most of Hardeeville’s growth has been in the Sun City, Riverton Pointe and Margaritaville communities, basically, retirees coming here. The average age in Hardeeville is 59.7. What I see with these new communities coming in and these younger families, I would say in 10 years the average age will be maybe 39.7.
Riverport Commerce Park, as seen on Monday afternoon, is roughly 1,700 acres of a 5,000-acre mixed-use tract in Jasper County. The developer, City of Hardeeville and Jasper County propose connecting the business park at U.S 17 with a flour-lane parkway to the new interchange at Interstate 95 and Purrysburg Road.
The new communities that come in are more geared to those first-time home buyers and the middle-class families that are going to be the workforce of that region.
IP: How are you going to ensure that housing stays affordable for people working there and doesn’t shift to retirees who can pay more?
HW: Unfortunately, the homes that are being master planed now are market priced homes. The only thing that you can do is provide homes that are a mixture of square footage. They go to whatever that market price is.
We’re asking each of the builders to develop a program that will provide some stability aside from the market. Now, that’s a broad statement, but if we can put together a program where a portion of these homes are kept at an affordable level for 20-30 years then we can assign the homes to school district or city employees and give them certain incentives and provide a stable base over the next X number of years.
IP: When will we start to see the impact of new communities?
HW: The influx of people will continue to grow gradually, all these new developments typically will take 10 years to build up. Again, that’s assuming no downturn in the economy, it’s based on the current economy. Last year, we approved almost 1,200 single family home permits. And it’s going up every year. When I became mayor, we were giving out 200 and it was mostly just in Sun City. Every year we we have a new record. And that’s going to continue as more and more of these master plans get approved.
IP: What will these communities look like? Can you compare them to anywhere in Beaufort County?
HW: DR Horton built a nice little self-contained community called University Park, which is adjacent to the University of South Carolina Beaufort, Bluffton campus. It’s a good visual of a community that has surrounding areas without through traffic. I don’t think they are fully what we envision for Hardeeville, where there will be parks throughout the community.
There are places in Bluffton near the Rotary Club and recreation center down there that have affordable type homes. I don’t know the details, but there are certainly smaller homes that are less acreage and more in the moderate price range. That might be the type of product that you’ll see but on a bigger and more closed scale. What I mean by that is more parks and open spaces where families can entertain themselves within the community.
IP: Will the communities be gated like much of Hilton Head?
HW: These are not gated communities. They will be open. They will have at least two access points and they will have access points to roads that will have sidewalks, and bike trails.
Getting back to negotiations with developers, we’re going to be asking everybody to buy into connectivity, so that they can go from one into the community to another safely. Your child goes out on a bicycle and goes to a park, you know they’re going to come back safe and sound. And if they have to go out on the main road, they’ll be walking on a sidewalk and not on the side of the street. And that’s so important to the communities that were master planning in the future.
IP: Do you think the difference in the quality of education will deter young families from moving to Hardeeville?
HW: If you look at the market today, the most affordable place to start for young families is now in Hardeeville. The price of homes and apartments in Beaufort County has risen, particularly in Bluffton. Hardeeville will now start attracting young couples who might be just starting out. Hardeeville will be a wonderful place for that first starter home before the family builds. By the time more and more of these young people come in and start having children, the schools will be receiving additional income and they can start competing with the Beaufort County numbers.
And by the way, I know there’s much said, but we have a dynamic school superintendent who understands what needs to be done to make our schools of a higher performing quality and those changes have started. It takes time.
IP: Beaufort County has the highest teacher salary in the state, what about that?
HW: As these new tax sources start coming in, they’ll be able to start competing with Beaufort County salaries as well, thus attracting teachers. At the same time, as we build these new communities, we will have places for them to live. And that’s the other thing that will be attractive to Hardeeville that won’t be attractive to Bluffton, or as attractive. We will have places they can afford to live near where they work. That’s really, really important.