Island Vibes April 2024

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2016 edition of Isle of Palms Magazine. 22 HISTORY Born to Be Wild Dunes: IOP’s World-Class Resort By Mike Sigalas any Charlestonians can recite the accolades heaped upon their hometown over the past decade, but they might have failed to notice that the area’s premier resort, Wild Dunes, is pretty popular as well. The readers of Condé Nast Traveler have ranked Wild Dunes as one of America’s “Top Southern Resorts” for fmany years. Its twin golf courses are rated among the nation’s and world’s best, and Tennis Resorts Online has named Wild Dunes one of the top five tennis resorts in the world. To the first-time traveler to Charleston, the world-class resort at Isle of Palms’ north end seems a fitting complement to the world-class city just south of Sullivan’s Island. But this was not always so. Until the mid-1970s, most people who spent the night north of IOP’s 41st Avenue slept in a trailer or tent at the old Sand Dollar Campground. Blogger Kelly Exline, who stayed at the campground with her family as a child, remembers “a magical sand dollar beach … our version of Shangri-La.” APRIL 1970 “A visit to a campground on the Isle of Palms,” wrote Post and Courier reporter Beth Brown in an April 16 feature on the growing camping craze, “reveals both young and old people, from many walks of life.” Brown proceeded to introduce the reader to a Danish couple with two children who planned to stay just one night, fell in love with the island’s natural beauty and ended up staying a week. Another family, from Pittsburgh, discovered the island on their way back up from Key West. Mrs. Wilbur Stough, from York, Pennsylvania, couldn’t get over the friendliness of her fellow campers – or the black fox squirrels, for whom she made extra pancakes. The Stanhopes of Wisconsin were on their way back home after watching the Masters in Augusta. A married pair of graduate students at the University of Delaware, the Hazels, were camping with their dog, Perry, and two sons, Jeffrey and Jimmy. “We think it’s just fabulous down here,” Mrs. Hazel told Brown. “If this property were at home, it would be full of homes. The land there is in such demand.” The north end of Isle of Palms wasn’t in demand in 1970, but all that would change in the decade ahead. Within 10 years, the campground would be built over with condominiums, and the north side of the island would be locked behind manned security gates. THE FRASER ERA In June 1972, Henry Finch purchased the north end of Isle of Palms from J.C. Long’s Beach Company for just under $1 million. That December, the Sea Pines Company of Hilton Head, fronted by Charles E. Fraser, took a $4 million option on the land. Fraser professed that before any development took place, he would first offer the property to city, state and federal agencies with the idea of turning it into a public park. However, if the public agencies didn’t make an acceptable offer, the Sea Pines Company would develop a “resort community to be known as the Charleston Beach and Racquet Club.” State Rep. Arnold S. Goodstein proposed that the state buy and preserve the north end of Isle of Palms, along with Dewees and Capers Islands, but neither the county, state nor feds came up with an offer. Even so, development on IOP did not begin immediately. Many Charleston County residents were concerned about the land’s new owners. Though Fraser was a respected and connected South Carolina native, his company, Sea Pines, had just signed a 20-year contract with the Kuwaiti Investment Company to manage the development of pristine Kiawah Island. The nation was in the midst of a recession, in part because of OPEC’s 1973-1974 oil embargo, which had driven gas prices through the ceiling. The idea of Kuwaiti sheiks buying a South Carolina sea island was unsettling to more than a few residents of the Palmetto State. At a meeting in November 1974, Fraser felt compelled to promise that absolutely no Kuwaiti money would be used to develop IOP. He also assured the audience at a public hearing that, unlike the resort-styled Kiawah and Hilton Head Island, Isle of Palms Beach and Racquet Club would be developed as “homes for year-round residents, including active retirees.” While the company planned to build a motel behind its gates, Fraser assured the public that he didn’t envision “gearing the development for tourists.” By early 1975, the Sea Pines Company planned to build two hotels for tourists, with up to 350 rooms. The company was also lobbying to have State Route 703 widened on Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms. The Sullivan’s Island Township Committee quickly put a halt to that idea, but plans for the resort, now the Isle of Palms Beach and Racquet Club, went on. In April 1975, an act of the South Carolina Legislature conveyed the northernmost 1.8 miles of Palm Boulevard – State Route 703 – to the town of Isle of Palms so it could allow developers to move it farther inland, away from the beach. Fraser wanted to build more oceanfront properties, but the state legislation made it clear that Isle of Palms leaders were expected to “encourage” the resort to continue to provide public access to the island’s northern beaches. This showdown would have to wait; Sea Pines had bigger problems. At its peak, the company had 11 resorts from Virginia to Puerto Rico, but, when the Federal Reserve Board cranked up interest rates from 6 percent to 12 percent in an attempt to stall inflation, housing starts plummeted, and the Sea Pines Company began selling its properties. Then, in April 1976, the Kuwaiti Investment Company abruptly severed Sea Pines’ lucrative, longterm contract to manage the development of Kiawah and sued Fraser’s firm for $1.6 million for allegedly defaulting on its obligations. Fraser and Sea Pines President James Light protested their innocence but announced that they would take this opportunity to develop their Isle of Palms property. Unfortunately, by this point, the tailspin was too steep. That November, the Sea Pines Company sold its ownership in the Isle of Palms Beach and Racquet Club back to Henry Finch and his partners, Wilbur Smith and Associates. THE CLOSED ROAD In December, the Isle of Palms Town Council made a major concession to the developers. The Finch/Smith plan to fence off its end of the island couldn’t happen unless old Highway 703 was closed off at the resort’s entrance. In exchange for closing M