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Fraser saw a resort through the forest
Founder of Sea Pines’ contributions enormous

Timothy Guidera
Savannah Morning News

If Hilton Head Island had its own currency, Charles Fraser’s picture would be on it.

French sea captain Jean Ribaut may have beaten Fraser and his family to the South Carolina barrier island, arriving roughly four hundred years earlier and bringing the first settlers after the American Indians who had inhabited the land since 4000 B.C., but no one who has shown up since has played a bigger role in the evolution of Hilton Head’s community and culture than the founder of Sea Pines Plantation.

It was Fraser’s vision and planning that developed the southernmost tip of the 41-square-mile island from timber forest into a premier vacation resort four decades ago. And it was his fierce protection of nature and wildlife that preserved its beauty. Fraser’s success with Sea Pines became the first and fundamental catalyst in the growth of Hilton Head into one of the world’s most popular tourism destinations and an increasingly vital, diverse residential community.

He has been called the father of Hilton Head, a visionary and one the most innovative and respected community planners in modern times. He has been described as bold, revolutionary, prophetic and, by cynics, simply blessed by fortunate lineage. But whether it was by luck, labor or love of a concept he was thoroughly convinced could work, Fraser laid the foundation upon which the resort city was built.

”He just did a super job developing Sea Pines and I would say that definitely helped Hilton Head grow,” says Gloria Sheppard-Taggert, a prominent Hilton Head resident for the last 35 years. ”I would say Charles did a great deal in terms of publicizing the island and making the island known. He contributed a lot.

”He’s a very intelligent developer.”

At first, he was just thought to be crazy.

A Study in Development

When Fraser first saw Hilton Head Island in 1949, he saw the future. But not without a liberal application of imagination.

When his father purchased 5,000 acres at the south end of the island to feed the family’s timber company, there were roughly 500 people living on Hilton Head, almost exclusively the families of resident farmers and oyster workers who would travel by boat to Savannah to sell their product. Fraser pictured the beautiful beaches, virgin pine forests and rich groves of great live oaks on his father’s property as a means for attracting a great many more people to the area.

So he bought it.

After working in the lumber camp on the island during the summer between graduating from the University of Georgia and entering Yale Law School, Fraser convinced his father to give him a 20-year note on the land and complete legal control of it. Then he made the plan to develop the property a personal project throughout the course of his continued education.

”I started talking to my Yale professors about land-use covenants, tax law and other things about Hilton Head Island and got a graduate student at Yale Architectural School to do his master’s thesis on the south end of Hilton Head,” says Fraser, who earned his law degree in 1953. ”I spent six years researching in every conceivable source on resort development.”

It was all information he would eventually need to convince investors, banks and various other skeptics that the project could work.

Reaching Hilton Head, which was entirely detached from any mainland at the time, was difficult and time-consuming, and there w! as also the prevalent theory that Fraser was pursuing an idea whose time had passed rather than working toward the future.

”I was probably told 50 times between 1954 and 1956 that the era of beach resorts was over,” says Fraser. ”The belief was that, with improved highways, all the important families of Savannah and Charleston — who considered themselves the only market that mattered for these beach places — were going to the mountains for the summer.”

He faced two other challenges that could have kept people away: Heat and mosquitoes.

”Two major livability factors,” he says.

But timing and the time he spent researching eventually favored him.

The first bridge connecting Hilton Head to Bluffton was built in 1956, a year before construction began at Sea Pines, and Fraser found ways to battle Hilton Head’s summer elements.

He hired Dr. Frank Arnold and employed his then-revolutionary process to fight insect infestation — the use of a! light areal spray along the marsh’s edge during the full moon — and made the area more inhabitable. He also took advantage of what he calls an era of dramatic change that occurred in the decade following World War II, when home cooling systems could be purchased at a reasonable price, decreeing that Sea Pines be the first universally air conditioned resort in the south.

Slow, Steady Growth

The long preparation begat gradual progress, but the steady growth was also consistent.

Homes were built, lots sold and in 1959 construction started on the Ocean Course, only the third resort golf course on the South Carolina coast and the first on Hilton Head. Tennis facilities and the Sea Marsh Course followed, as did the Harbour Town Golf Links and the Sea Pines Heritage Golf Classic in 1969.

In the first 13 years of developing Sea Pines, the community’s year-round population had grown to approximately 2,500. Growth escalated almost immediately, as visitor! s to the tournament were captivated by the island’s lifestyle and relocated there, largely an influx of retired professionals.

Today, Hilton Head has grown to be a thriving, incorporated city of nearly 29,000 residents where the median value of a home is more than $200,000. According to Chamber of Commerce figures, the island boasts 10 marinas, 22 golf courses, 3,000 hotel rooms and nearly 600 retail stores in 40 shopping centers.

Many of the island’s residents moved there for the same reasons that attracted the first arrivals to Sea Pines. Nearly half a century after he pursued the idea of island living, Fraser’s image of a coastal retreat has evolved beyond imagination.

”I think (Sea Pines) was the major stimulus for growth on the island,” says Joe Fraser, Charles’ brother and the chairman of the Heritage Classic Foundation that operates the MCI Classic. ”It was just something that he thought could be done and he put enough effort into it to get it done.”

And he invested enough ideology to get it done the way he thought was right.

The Noah’s Ark Phenomenon

The essential framework of Fraser’s plan was to develop without destroying. To preserve the creatures that inhabited the environment he hoped to make inhabitable for man. To protect the area’s natural beauty while allowing it to be enjoyed by the new residents.

The building of Sea Pines, he says, was a strict exercise in something he refers to as the Noah’s Ark Phenomenon.

”Noah’s Ark had both people and animals on it,” says Fraser. ”I believe very profoundly that the environment of earth should be shared by both man and beast. And, when I first saw Hilton Head Island in 1949, it was a place crying out to be shared.”

So, while studying real estate development, he remained aware of his interest in birds and wildlife. The majority stockholder in Sea Pines, he admits to consulting a multitude of counsel on the project. And, if he was intellectually persuaded by someone, the company’s policies and philosophy could be swiftly shifted.

But he never wavered on the subject of conservancy.

He mandated that the large populations of herons, egrets, otter and deer not be harmed by Sea Pines’ development and that the fewest number of trees be removed during construction. To complement rather than overpower the surroundings, he also wrote into community bylaws that homes be approved by an architectural review board and use only muted colors and lighting schemes. No home could exceed three stories, no tree wider than six inches in diameter could be cut and entire communities, homes and streets were designed around trees.

The practice was successful in keeping Sea Pines quiet and classic and was adopted as standard procedure in community planning throughout the country. It also became law throughout Hilton Head Island when Fraser was selected to write the city’s covenant, which is resp! onsible for not allowing billboards or directly lit signs on Highway 278 and prevents businesses from using bright colors on the exterior of their buildings.

”Mr. Fraser is a great man and an incredible visionary,” says Mike Stevens, who was the tournament director of the Heritage for 12 years until taking a job with the PGA Tour last fall. ”You don’t realize how much Hilton Head has become until you’re not there any more. The way he preserved the beautiful paradise there is unbelievable. I think anybody that would question his influence is not seeing the big picture.”

It Worked After All

At 69, Fraser is far from out of the picture today.

He sold Sea Pines in 1983, but is still active in planning on the island and throughout the world. He is listed as the founding chief executive officer for eight different developments and offers consulting and advisory services to another seven.

He is the director, president or executive vice preside! nt of four corporations, including the Charles E. Fraser Company. His resume is six pages long.

He has received virtually every principal award and recognition in the community planning field, including the Urban Land Institute Heritage Award, which has been given out only five times in 75 years, and in 1992 he was first listed in Who’s Who in the World.

Fraser has enjoyed a career that has been equally distinguished and successful and has shaped the way the world builds communities today. And all because nearly 50 years ago, he figured something out.

‘About half of Americans want to go see the ocean on their vacation,” says Fraser. ”Another half is split between mountains, theme parks, lakes, cities. But about half, if they can, want to get to the beach.

”There is something primevally appealing in man to be along the ocean edge. So, to share this environment, you have a program of making it available for people to live in comfort and visit in comfort.”

The theory worked for Fraser.

And, ever since, Fraser’s impact has worked for Hilton Head.

Web posted 4/12/98

Copyright© 2001 Morris Communications Corporation

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