Island company leads charge to provide workforce housing

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Lee Lucier, COO of the Richardson Group, shows the early stages of construction in one of eight studio apartment units the company developed in a commercial building near Coligny Plaza. LYNNE COPE HUMMELL

While many are talking about the dearth of affordable housing options for workers on Hilton Head Island, a few are actually doing something about it.

Consider the Richardson Group, owner and developer of Coligny Plaza and other commercial properties on the island. Making use of empty space above a building the company already owned, eight studio apartment units were created over the past year. Tenants moved into the units the first weekend in February.

It wasn't easy, said Lee Lucier, chief operating office for the Richardson Group. "There were a lot of slips, falls and dives," he said. But the group persevered through the "steep learning curve."

The building at 7 Lagoon Road has been in the news recently as the new home of the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, called SoundWaves, which occupies the lower level. Previously the space had been used by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office.

J.R. Richardson, CEO Of the Richardson Group, bought the building in 2014, "because it was contiguous to Coligny and he wanted to have some say as to what growth around Coligny would be," Lucier said. "He felt we didn't need another national chain store - he wanted local."

When the leadership from the Orchestra reached out, looking for space, Richardson was happy to work with them.

"Converting from a police station to the symphony was not an easy process," Lucier said, but the company worked diligently with the orchestra board and the Town to make it work. SoundWaves opened its doors in October 2018.

Then the question arose, Lucier said, of "what to do with the upstairs?" After getting opinions from various directions, someone said, "Why not living spaces?"

As they began to consider the possibilities, Lucier said they they discovered this sort of thing hadn't happened on Hilton Head Island before.

Lucier said as far as building codes and logistics are concerned, it would have been easier to create retail space upstairs. To convert from commercial to living space required many conversations with Town officials in order to meet three sets of code requirements.

There were also noise concerns. Because the orchestra holds performances in its space, Lucier said they had to ensure that the ceiling was extremely well insulated so as to not disturb the residents upstairs.

"The process has been challenging," Lucier said, "with the planning of a renovation to a mixed-use building, since it really hadn't been done before here in Hilton Head, yet the Town has been amazing in their support."

The eight units vary in size, averaging approximately 420 square feet each. A community laundry room is provided at the end of the hall. Rent ranges from $900 to $1,000, Lucier said, including utilities and internet.

Once word got around the Coligny area that the rental space would be available, potential tenants spoke up quickly. Many of the eight tenants are retail workers, chefs, and other hospitality workers.

"Maybe it's not a lot," Lucier said, "but it does provide alternative housing for eight people."

Lucier said the cost of the project was "well in excess of $700,000."

The Richardson Group intends to continue finding suitable existing buildings to convert to alternative housing. The management hopes other corporations will follow suit.

The next project is already in the works, Lucier said. The upstairs of the Rollers Building in Coligny Plaza is slated to become four units, each with two bedrooms and two baths.

Additionally, there's another, larger housing conversion in the works, Lucier said, that hasn't been announced just yet. "But I can say we have a large building on Hwy. 278 that will be converted to 20 units," he said. "That will mean 20 to 30 food and beverage employees on the south end who aren't going to be sitting on the bridge."

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