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Member Spotlight: Beaufort, SC Mayor Billy Keyserling

Learn more about Mayor Billy Keyserling and his work in Beaufort, SC.Why is infrastructure so important to your community?

The City of Beaufort created a “100 Year (block by block) Civic Master Plan” with the intention of doubling our population on our current footprint. The primary focus is to make our historic downtown more environmentally, culturally, and financially sustainable.

Infrastructure is key to generating private investment, which enhances commerce, creates jobs, and enriches our quality of life. Roads, bridges, waterways, resiliency to rising sea levels, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly with safe sidewalks and biking, jogging and walking paths; also the restoration of marine access; more effective storm water utilities and management, parks, schools and universities and, libraries are all required to protect and enhance our historic community.

How do you balance preserving Beaufort’s historical district with the town’s transportation needs?

Downtown Beaufort (established in 1711) is one of South Carolina’s four Historic Landmark Districts, with a second (Penn School, the first school for freed slaves) only ten minutes away.

Our historic district, with the Intra-Coastal Waterway meandering through the core, drives property values, tourism, retirement living, and lures businesses seeking a better quality of life for owners and employees. 

But nearly 40 percent of the and in the downtown is vacant, where homes and businesses used to sit. Many of our residents and businesses were absorbed by suburban sprawl, and much of our native population cannot afford to maintain what they forefathers left to them. 

The challenge is to bring people back into the historic district, and attract new residents and businesses, through infill and redevelopment.  Investment in infrastructure – upgraded water and sewer and storm water, better connectivity and walkability, traffic calming, neighborhood parks and cultural assets – are used to leverage private investment to ensure the historic district is as attractive as possible.

Unfortunately, the economics of public transportation in a small city is very difficult.  That said, modest shuttle services to and from the edge to our core city, along with trails and sidewalks can reduce and better manage traffic are very important in a small city within one of the fasting growing regions in the nation.

What are the primary growth engines in the Beaufort area?

About 20 percent of our working residents are employed by the local, state or federal governments.  A large number of these are with the military because Beaufort is home to three Department of Defense installations. While we are happy for the government’s presence here, it is not healthy for the region to be so dependent upon one business sector over which we can exert little influence or control.

Tourism is robust and growing, and we’ve seen a strong influx of people who choose to relocate for retirement. But these segments must be balanced. They require space and can challenge our natural resources. By and large, tourism and retirement populations do not provide the income necessary for working people to remain in their hometown and provide a better future for their children.

That said, we see an opportunity for the quality of life we offer and our unique work force (i.e. military veterans who want to stay in the area) to drive job diversification. We are focused on growing small businesses and drawing businesses to the community. Located between Savannah and Charleston, a region with thriving automotive and aeronautics industries, we are ideally situated to attract smaller companies in the supply chain to these industries and others.  

Are there local projects you’re particularly proud of?

I am most proud of our Civic Master Plan which, with the necessary infrastructure, will drive future development that is environmentally, culturally and fiscally sustainable.

Beaufort, SCWe have a $33 million game-changing gateway project which will transform our current “Anywhere, USA” entrance to conform to the historic core. Funded through local and federal dollars, this project will open scenic vistas, further protect our pristine waters, create a sense of place with traffic calming planted medians, wider tree-lined sidewalks, buried utility lines, a parallel street to the rear of commercial and residential assets, and bicycle connectivity to our rail-to-trail path that will lead from the City core out to rural areas – and perhaps one day all the way to Charleston.

It is noteworthy that the majority of the funding for this 14-mile Spanish Moss Trail project has been from private sources, but they will soon be depleted and we hope to leverage our success for federal investment. 

Unfortunately, state transportation needs have overwhelmed the state government. South Carolina is not able to maintain its roads, rights of way and storm water assets, putting an excessive burden on a local government that will never have the tax base do adequately address the issues. That said, we are stretching resources to the best of our ability, because infrastructure assets are critical to the well-being and potential growth of our city.

Have you had a memorable experience, good or bad, working with the federal government on an infrastructure or transportation project?

In our Council-Mayor-Manager form of government, the Mayor has little engagement with state and federal agencies. That said, the lack of flexibility to localize infrastructure standards to fit a community’s landscape, goals and aspirations is costly and creates extraordinarily frustrating road blocks to our future. Our 300 year old hometown was not created with a cookie cutter, and we cannot grow with rules that require cookie cutter answers. State and regulatory “one size fits all” standards make most of infrastructure very difficult to grow.

The state would like us to accept and maintain their rights of way, roads and storm water systems which are aged and not affordable for a small town to manage.

Do you have a favorite project in another city/state that you’d like to replicate?

There are bits and pieces of New England villages that have managed to sustain themselves and are similar to what we have and are trying to enhance. But quite frankly, restoring and growing the most unique and best hometown in the world – Beaufort, SC – is the model we are following.