Selling Santee

Entering his second four-year term as mayor of this charming South Carolina town, Donnie Hilliard has big plans for continuing growth in a place widely known as “America’s Value Golf Destination.”

For more than a half-century, traveling enthusiasts making their way through South Carolina along Interstate 95 — often with golf clubs close at hand — have enjoyed staying in Santee. Through the years Santee, which is located almost exactly midway between New York and Miami, has become known for its excellent golf, superb fishing, affordable accommodations and outstanding food and entertainment.

Santee mayor Donnie Hilliard, 70, won his first race for office by six votes and ran unopposed in 2014. Five years ago, Hilliard started walking five miles a day following quadruple bypass surgery and today says his health is “wonderful.”

Despite not being able to play much golf anymore, Hilliard said he is always looking to improve the destination for golfers. Hilliard recently sat down with golf writer Brad King to discuss his second-term plans in Santee.

QUESTION: Tell me about Santee, S.C.

HILLIARD: Santee is a little community — I-95 splits our town in half. What the founding fathers — and God bless their souls, most of them are gone now — they saw what I call this ‘Mecca,’ where everyone off I-95 would come and create all the economic activity that they wanted. If you get tired, stop in Santee and stay in the hotels. We have close to 900 hotel rooms and a permanent population of just 950 people. That’s within the town corporate limits. But in what I call the 29420 zip code we have 5,000 (people).

QUESTION: Tell me about Santee’s popularity as a golf destination.

HILLIARD: Santee truly is a haven for golfers as it attracts upwards of 100,000 golfers each year. Santee offers — all in one I-95 exit — three lakeside golf courses with an additional 14 layouts within a half-hour drive. Santee National, Santee Cooper Resort and Lake Marion provide wide fairways, challenging greens, water hazards and impeccable maintenance, and have all been upgraded through the years. With Interstate 26 just a few more miles south, golfers can make a short day trip to Charleston and play the likes of The Links at Stono Ferry, Legend Oaks, Westcott Plantation and Charleston National to name a few.

QUESTION: Did you grow up in Santee?

HILLIARD: No, I grew up about 15 miles away in a little town called Holly Hill. Santee is my father’s hometown. I moved here 10 years ago — just my wife and me. I came to settle my father’s estate and I liked the community. When I retired from being a county administrator and later as CEO of a community health center, I built a house on Santee National Golf Course. I was going to call myself retired and play golf every damn day. But after a while, that got old.

QUESTION: How did you come to run for mayor?

HILLIARD: A lot of the folks were bugging me about running for mayor because they knew I was a retired administrator. So I decided to run for it and I did. That was five years ago. This time around no one filed to run against me, so I said, ‘Oh boy, here I am.’ Now my wife and kids are fussing at me because they say I spend too much time here and I am ruining the town because I work for a dollar and I just have fun. I’m using the money they were paying the previous mayor and his administration to do a lot of marketing. I said, ‘Well they’ll get eight years of that and if they can’t go from there that’s their fault.’ My kids are complaining but the town is having a ball.

QUESTION: Tell us about the challenges you’ve faced in your position thus far.

HILLIARD: We are trying to maintain the golf engine that generates most of our economy.  We’ve got three golf courses in our town ourselves and there are three more about five miles away, so we became a golf destination to try to attract folks. In all our packagers are selling almost 20 courses in the region. We use most of our money to attract folks from the cold-weather areas and Canada. We are working hard to develop the amenities to sustain the golf and also attract the next generation of golfers.

QUESTION: I understand Santee is also known for some outstanding fishing?

HILLIARD: Lake Marion is one of the largest lakes in South Carolina and it’s here, right at our banks. Fishing is something we focused on for years but we found that we didn’t get a big economic return from the fishing tournaments. Most participants brought in their expensive campers and motorhomes or either they went down to fishing camps, which are right down by the water, so therefore the hotels and restaurants in town did not benefit as much from it. But fishing is the type things we are looking to include from time to time, along with the golf.

QUESTION: I hear you’ve got some very nice restaurants in Santee as well?

HILLIARD: The food is wonderful. Clark’s and Captains Quarters maintain that niche, so to speak, for the golfers.

QUESTION: What else new is going on around Santee?

HILLIARD: We’ve got an investor to work with us on putting in a restaurant on the lake. That’s on the drawing board now. We have just opened a conference center that is managed by the town. It’s been open for about three years now. We can come up with some events to hold there and let the town sponsor them.

QUESTION: Plans for your second term as mayor?

HILLIARD: I want to try to sell the town story locally. We’ve never done that to our local people within a 50- or 60-mile radius of us. We’ve just assumed that they know where we are. We are having an infusion of economic opportunity where we don’t really know what the impact is going to be because it’s outside of the town limits. They are creating another exit into the town off I-95. We’ve got Exit 98 and now there’s going to be Exit 97, another full-fledged interchange a mile away that should open within the next year.

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