Ever wonder who keeps our town postcard-perfect and running like a machine? Meet the folks behind the Town of Hilton Head Island.
When someone says the words “the government,” you usually don’t picture a smiling face. You probably don’t think about the people who keep that government running, putting their passions to work for the public. But you should, especially here.
The Town of Hilton Head Island isn’t just a singular entity. It’s a team of people who live and work here just like us. Each one brings their unique spirit, determination and specialty to their field, the culmination of which is an organization that keeps our green spaces beautiful, ensures our citizens have access to the best services, and welcomes millions of visitors each year.
Come meet the folks behind the town and see why a smiling face might be the perfect visual for our local government.
Chris Blankenship, Fire Chief
Chief Chris Blankenship has experienced the world of firefighting from every rung of the ladder—literally and figuratively. In the small town of Byron, Illinois, where two of his next-door neighbors were volunteer firefighters, his journey began when he was still in high school as part of the cadet program. He joined the fire service while still a junior, following his passion to Eastern Kentucky University where he earned his degree in fire and safety engineering technology.
Continuing a lifelong pattern of not being able to wait to get started, he landed on Hilton Head Island while still a junior at EKU, interning with the department here. Seven days after the diploma was in his hand, he was getting his official start as a Hilton Head Island firefighter.
“When you get into this, it’s not a job. It’s a career,” he said. In fact, Blankenship will be the first to tell you that “work is my life.” While you can sometimes find him out on the golf course working on his handicap (which is “the highest you can get,” he’ll tell you with a laugh) or out in the field as a member of Savage Trails in Pembroke, Georgia, most of the time you’ll find him right in the thick of things as fire chief.
For him, it’s all part of leading an organization that he’s seen from the intern level up, gaining a newfound respect with every step up the ladder.
“We’re a very diverse organization in the sense that we have people from all over the country that work here and bring different backgrounds and experiences with them. We have amazing opportunities here,” Blankenship said. “I think with our organization, and the town in general, everything we do has a team approach. Being a member of the senior leadership of the town, I’ve learned even more.”
It may say chief on his business card, and it may be a title that he’s earned after a lifetime of pursuing his dream of being a firefighter, but it’s an honor that he shares with everyone in his command. “We cannot be successful here without members of my team and the people who work with us,” he said.
Nicte Barrientos, Assistant Planner – Economic Development
Having started with the town in August last year, Nicte Barrientos might be a new face at town hall, but she’s certainly not a new face around town.
“I moved here from Spain when I was eight, and I’ve been a resident ever since, other than my four years at Clemson,” she said. “I wanted to stay here on the island because my whole family’s here. I’ve always wanted to make the community a better place.”
She’s certainly fulfilling that goal as an assistant planner – economic development, tackling assistance programs that help residents through home repairs, storm damage and access to sewer connections. “With the home safety and sewer connections programs, I’m working with the community every day, helping them fill out applications and guiding them through the process,” she said. “In the end, I’m here to assist the community.”
The one-on-one attention she gives is complemented by the slightly broader view she’s taken in helping mitigate the always-thorny workforce housing issues that have dominated discourse on the island. It’s her way of doing what she’s always wanted to do: make the community a better place, on the small scale and large.
“Really what I’m doing with these assistance programs is giving back to a place that gave me so much growing up,” Barrientos said. “I spent a lot of time at the Boys & Girls Club growing up, and my family had a lot of help, so that’s why I wanted to get back here. I wanted to give back.”
It wasn’t all altruistic. While she takes immense pride in the work she does to uplift the community, just being here is reward enough. An active member of the community, she’s a fixture on the island’s adult soccer league and a former coach at the Island Rec Center. “It’s very different now, seeing it from an adult perspective,” she said. “We live where other people vacation, and I think growing up here I took that for granted. Now, I couldn’t imagine myself living anywhere else.”
April Akins, Revenue Services Manager
Keep your jokes about tax collectors. After 13 years in revenue services with the Town of Hilton Head Island, April Akins has heard them all.
“No one likes paying taxes. I get it,” she said. “Fortunately, our businesses are so easy to work with; I feel very lucky that I don’t have to be the bad guy. I love my job, and that makes it a little easier.”
Beyond overseeing collection of local taxes, Akins leads a team that collects ATAX funds, beach preservation fees, business license fees, EMS revenue and, most pressingly, collects on permitting for the new short-term rental ordinance.
“That has more or less consumed my life for the past year or so and will continue to do so,” she said. “It was a huge undertaking and impacts so many departments across the organization. The town has never regulated short-term rentals, so it’s new territory for everyone involved.”
Fortunately, Akins is the type to find ways to avoid being the bad guy. While property owners get accustomed to the new regulations, she’s been willing to waive fees and do the extra work to get everyone on board.
“We’ve implemented a lot of changes, so I think being fair is important. And I’m very fortunate to have leadership that supports me in that position,” she said. That leadership forms a crucial part of a network that spans the entirety of town government, with everyone from community development to the fire department playing a role in defining how the new short-term ordinance will work.
“It’s cool to be part of such a big program,” Akins said. “I get to say, ‘I remember when this started. I was there the day this went live.’”
It can be a testy proposition, collecting fees that people just learned existed. But it helps that Akins has developed long-term relationships around the island in nearly 28 years living here. “I’m originally from Atlanta, so it came down to the city or the beach,” she said. “I came to the beach and never left.”
Lisa Stauffer, Human Resources Director
Despite having spent the last 25 years in human resources, Lisa Stauffer didn’t always know she’d find her calling in HR. In fact, she studied chemistry in college before realizing that a different kind of chemistry was more her speed.
“I love people, and HR is a people-focused field,” she said. She says she fell into HR while serving as office manager for a manufacturing firm near her native Philadelphia, and it was love at first sight. “I really found that I enjoyed my interactions with employees. And now, in a director role, I enjoy strategic thinking and solving more difficult problems. The workforce is constantly changing; it’s never the same thing. If you don’t like change, you should not be in HR.”
Stauffer and her husband made a big change in 2009, trading the wintry weather of Philly for the sunny shores of Hilton Head Island where her family had already relocated. “We realized we were coming down here every four months for a week. Why not stay?”
As they are both avid golfers, boaters and tennis players, it was a natural transition. “We work hard and play hard, that’s definitely our motto,” she said.
Three years after making the move to the island, Stauffer made another move, this time from the private to the public sector. “This is my first job in local government and there’s something very satisfying about doing meaningful work, and on top of that benefiting the people in the community,” she said. “I’ve loved my career in HR, and this is definitely the icing on the cake.”
Having moved up to HR director two years ago, Stauffer relishes the new opportunities and challenges that come with being in charge. “I have a great team who handles a lot of the day to day of benefits, workers comp, performance management and things like that. My role is really working with senior leadership to make sure the town is a great place to work,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Ben Brown, Senior Advisor to the Town Manager
For most of us, a bicycle ride around the island is a chance to soak up the sun, enjoy the scenery and maybe work up a sweat. For Ben Brown, his regular spins around the island’s bike paths are a chance to bask in a job well done.
“One of my favorite things to do is to ride my bike and see the things I’ve been involved in,” he said. It must take him on a pretty long trip. As senior advisor to the town manager, he’s involved in everything from land acquisition and strategic planning to smaller details like the use of common areas. The biggest thing on his plate lately is the North Pointe project, the public-private housing partnership initiative currently underway on the north end.
“I’ve always enjoyed planning and implementing projects. We have so many opportunities to shape redevelopment on the island and create a best-in-class community for folks who work and live here,” he said.
And while the big projects make for the most impressive sights on Brown’s regular bike rides, it’s the little things that bring him the greatest joy.
“Some of the smaller things that I’ve been involved in are paying dividends, like common areas, or the way contracts are structured,” he said. “We have such a talented team here that we are able to reimagine a lot of these common areas and think of how they can best serve the community.”
Like many locals, Brown started out as a tourist, visiting family here as far back as the 1980s. After starting his career in the cruise industry where met his wife, the couple moved here in 2001. Within two weeks, he had landed a job at the town as a community development planner. He would go on to spend eight years with Palmetto Dunes, overseeing a massive list of large-scale projects as the community underwent a total overhaul, before returning to the public sector.
“I enjoy working with Marc (Orlando, town manager), Town Council and our senior leadership. There’s a big group of talent here,” he said.
Krishana Perry, Principal Planner – Historic Neighborhood Preservation
In some ways, Krishana Perry’s Hilton Head Island story is much like anyone else’s. She came here because she loved the beach and wound up staying. Unlike many of us, however, the allure of the beach was only secondary in drawing Perry. What really drew her to Hilton Head Island was the chance to do something to make a difference.
“I have a background in advocacy for groups that are being marginalized or who haven’t had a seat at the table,” she said. “I started looking into issues in black communities across the country, and when Hilton Head Island came up, I felt called to be a part of a community that’s working to maintain its history while lifting up its own economy.”
Perry’s extensive background in community engagement and public policy began with a stint at the federal government before she left that job to play a more direct role in the communities she sought to serve. In her role with the Town of Hilton Head Island, she brings together her governmental experience and her grassroots approach to community.
“It entails a few different buckets. As a planner, I have responsibilities in land development in historic neighborhoods, and I work with property owners in historic neighborhoods to determine what kind of development they could do. I help them work through the LMO so they understand the standards the town requires,” she said. This role as essentially a liaison between the town and the Gullah community puts her right in the thick of the community she’s here to serve.
“I think it’s very fulfilling to be able to influence people’s daily lives,” she said. Just to be trusted, to show up for others, that’s the biggest thing. There will always be problems, but looking at it from a place of joy, I get to help create solutions.”
Zenos Morris, Assistant Community Development Director
As an employee at one of the largest architectural firms in the country, Zenos Morris helped define the built environment of far-flung places like Doha, Qatar, but the city life of Brooklyn was taking its toll.
“I got a little burnt out in New York and decided to take some time off. After about a year here, I decided I was going to make this my home,” he said. “Originally, when I moved down here, I wanted to have an impact on architecture here in the Lowcountry.”
Morris already had his introduction to the area having worked on Hilton Head Christian Academy’s Bluffton campus. “When I had the opportunity to come to the town, it was the same energy,” he said. “I wanted to have an impact on the built environment of the town and see what the island could be—not only understanding what it is, but also what it could be in 20 years.”
He spent five years at renowned firm Court Atkins Group before moving into the public sector, time he spent immersing himself in the singular architectural beauty of his adopted hometown. “The island has a unique nature and aesthetic that was developed when the island was developed,” he said. “Now we have some opportunities to take it into the twenty-first century by taking advantage of some technologies that have developed in the last 50 years.”
His arrival on the island comes at the perfect moment in our history. “The island is growing. A lot of people have moved down here, and we have to somewhat adapt to accommodate the influx of people as well,” Morris said. “As far as the built environment, I’m not saying it’s going to change immensely, but we do have to learn to adapt to a new era.”
As for Morris, he’s adapting well to his new built environment after trading Brooklyn’s high rises for the island’s low-profile beauty. “Being here on the island, it’s about the people as well,” he said. “That’s what’s beautiful about the island; it’s truly a place where you can meet people from all over the world. I hope my being here brings something to the table for the island.”
Whitaker Night, Landscape and Grounds Manager
When you look at the natural environments of Hilton Head Island, you can still see the driving ethos that served as the bedrock of the island’s modern era. When Charles Fraser founded Sea Pines, the philosophy was simple: work with what nature gives you rather than imposing your own aesthetic on it.
Whitaker Knight moved to the island in 2016, but his appreciation for the richness of the island’s environment goes much farther back.
“My great-great grandma used to have a house on North Forest Beach,” he said. “Six years ago, we found it. The lot was for sale, but the house was free.”
Born and raised in Auburn, Alabama, he would stick close to home in earning his horticulture degree before beginning his career in commercial and residential landscape management, a journey that took him from Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club to Hilton Head Island. Now, as landscape and grounds manager, he carries on that dedication to working with the island’s natural environment.
“We’re just trying to go through our higher profile areas to promote native species and our hardwood trees like live oaks to allow them to grow better with less competition,” he said. That can be tricky when the competition in question comes from vines that are aggressive, tenacious and occasionally beautiful. “When you get Carolina jessamine, which is our state flower and is natural and fine, if it’s not managed correctly, it will choke out the live oaks and block sunlight to the understory. If native plants are not getting sunlight, they’re not growing berries and creating habitats for our native species. It’s about maintaining native habitats.”
And he’s maintaining those habitats in an island home that he has fallen for.
“I love being able to have a role in serving the community. I love being able to make a difference in the way people enjoy bike paths and parks,” he said. “To be a part of enhancing it and promoting it is really exciting.”