Meet three locals on the front lines of our area’s growth and prosperity.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
There is perhaps no government position that carries more weight than town or city manager. When they’re doing their job right, we’re hardly aware they exist. When they’re not, they suddenly find themselves with a big target on their back.
It can be thankless at times, but it’s a testament to the civic pride inherent in the position that our area’s city and town managers not only show up every day for more, they show up with zest and enthusiasm. Each beautification project that surges our property values upward, every new utility that makes life easier for us and our neighbors, is the result of their hard work and passion.
This issue, we salute our area’s hardest working public servants: our city and town managers.
City Manager of Beaufort
To residents of Beaufort, there might be something familiar about Keene, New Hampshire. Like Beaufort, it boasts a charming historic district, vibrant cultural scene and a large college presence in the form of Keene State College and Antioch University New England. Like Beaufort, it has a rich history, dating back to its first settlers in 1736.
Another thing it has in common is Bill Prokop, who came to Beaufort in 2013 after serving six years as Keene’s assistant city manager.
“Other than Keene having about twice the population, everything was very similar,” said Prokop, who is now Beaufort’s city manager. “Even though they’re thousands of miles apart, they have so much in common it’s scary.”
That similarity made Prokop the perfect fit for Beaufort when an opportunity arose, hastening a move South he’d been planning for years. He jumped right into the job and got right to work helping urge the city to grow while still maintaining a respect for its roots.
“You have to be able to listen to people who have been here for many years. Many of them don’t want to change – they want to keep what we consider the special aura of Beaufort,” he said. “At the same time, we have to change.”
Spurring that change were statistics that Beaufort was bleeding younger residents, to the tune of a 25-30 percent population drop. Prokop and Beaufort’s city government met that challenge with the creation of a digital corridor, one part of a host of programs aimed at creating more diverse employment opportunities in the city. Balancing that forward-thinking approach against the desire for residents to keep Beaufort beautiful forms some of Prokop’s biggest challenges.
“The number one thing is to be a good listener and understand what those issues are,” he said.
That has helped Prokop and his staff build immense credibility within the community, forged in regular meetings with area neighborhoods and community stakeholders. He describes the early iterations of these meetings as somewhat confrontational in nature, a mood that has greatly shifted as constituents see the work being done on their behalf. That transparency is at the heart of everything Prokop does.
“We try to keep people informed on the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said. “You can look at our website, if anyone wants to know anything about any expense in any department … they can go right to the website and it’s right there.”
Town Manager of Bluffton
It could be said that the only thing that defines Bluffton is the degree to which it is impossible to define. In the past, it was thought of as a funky little arts enclave, a slow-as-molasses Southern river town, and a speed trap for tourists visiting Hilton Head Island. With the exception of the speed trap reputation, it’s still all those things, but it is also so much more. If you walk the streets of Old Town, it’s a quaint small-town destination revered in national periodicals for its boundless charm. Wander into Palmetto Bluff and it’s a globally recognized destination with a guest list of the rich and famous. Over in the Buckwalter area, it’s a thriving technological and small business powerhouse, driving the region forward one entrepreneur at a time.
It’s all of these things, and as such it defies any tidy definition.
Unless you ask Bluffton’s Town Manager Marc Orlando. He’ll tell you one thing defines Bluffton: people. As he unwinds with a cup of coffee at Corner Perk, he does so just feet away from where private citizens and Rotarians got together hours earlier to raise $14,000 for improvement to Oscar Frazier Park. “While I was at home with my family last night, they were in here raising money. It’s the people,” he said. “It’s the connection of people and the joint venture partnerships and relationships that are, I think, making this work the way it works.”
And by this, he means a town that has grown by leaps and bounds during not just his time as town manager, but even before that when he served as growth management director during a period of explosive growth. Under his watchful eye, projects from the Buckwalter Tech Park to the Old Town Master Plan helped temper that growth with an eye on maintaining respect for Bluffton’s heritage.
“At the end of the day what’s great about it is we’re creating someplace great to live, great to raise families and one of the greatest places to retire,” he said. “I think we’re creating… In our town, that make the whole community a better place to live.”
When he views his work with the town of Bluffton, Marc Orlando sees more than roads and zoning and construction. He sees residents.
“It’s not just lines on a paper; it’s someone’s future home,” he said. “Details matter. We only have one chance to get a blank canvas right.”
Town Manager of Hilton Head Island
At this point, there’s probably not much about Steve Riley you don’t know. Far beyond just serving as town manager, he became a rallying point for the island after Hurricane Matthew, a shining example of the civil servant going above and beyond. It’s the reason they made him grand marshal in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, an honor rarely reserved for town managers. The flipside of his notoriety has come from his reluctant role as a political sticking point, with everything from his relationship with council to his salary being dragged out into the public forum for examination.
It may seem like there isn’t much about Steve Riley you don’t know, but the man still has a few surprises, starting with his dry sense of humor.
“You probably shouldn’t even know who your town manager is, I think,” he said with a laugh. When asked about his fame over the last few years. “It’s nice but to be an election topic, to have that many people know who you are… there are times that I just get uncomfortable with the fact that I wound up so well known. I joke with friends back home, ‘Who’s your town manager?’ They don’t know.”
Still, it’s not like Steve Riley was an unknown before his Hurricane Matthew heroics. A town employee since 1991 and town manager since 1994, he’s served as a steward during some of the most historic years in Hilton Head Island’s development. His work to create TIF districts and implement the land acquisition program was vital in shaping Hilton Head Island into the vital resort town it is today.
Make no mistake, Hilton Head Island is a resort town, with all the joys and challenges that dual role carries with it. “I think you constantly have to be remaking yourself, you have to constantly be rolling something out,” he said. “It’s kind of like Disney World, every two years there’s a new ride. I’m not building rides, but we need to be freshening the place up on a regular basis.”
And just like Disney World, there’s more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye.
“Most days we’re just trying to fill potholes. We’re trying to fill basic services, making sure when you call 911 someone shows up,” he said. “There’s so much that goes into making sure services are delivered every day.”
He might view his day to day as simply keeping the machinery moving, but you have to acknowledge that without his decades of service, Hilton Head Island as we know it would be nowhere near the paradise it is.
(click on gallery thumbnail for larger photo)