Founded in 1562, Port Royal, S.C., is believed by some scholars to be the origin of European settlement in the New World.
The Spanish first landed in the area around 1514. While the town does not have a continual settlement history, it has had seven different flags fly over it — the Spanish, French, English, Scottish and American, in addition to the South Carolina flag and the Confederate flag during the Civil War.
According to Town Manager Van Willis, some people also now speculate the Port Royal area might have been the birthplace of barbecue.
“The Spanish brought over the pork and the Native Americans in the area had their smoking techniques,” said Willis. “They brought them together for the first barbecue.”
The town honors that tasty past with a Bands, Brews and BBQ event, which occurred this year Feb. 21 and 22. Additionally, the town held its 11th annual Soft Shell Crab Festival April 19. April is chosen for that festival, Willis stated, because it’s within the time frame when the crabs are molting.
Another event is the street music series the town underwrites. Willis noted people bring their coolers and children to enjoy an “eclectic” collection of musicians from varying genres.
Eclectic is how Willis would describe Port Royal itself. “We have a little over 10,000 people. We’re known for diversity.” He added the town has a unique assortment of personalities, which is why as the town approaches the branding process it is considering the slogan “get bent.” “We’re known for having a population that is somewhat bent,” he said in good humor.
While nearby Beaufort, S.C., has long been thought of as a military city, many people don’t realize the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island is actually located in Port Royal, along with the Naval hospital Beaufort. It’s a common theme for Port Royal: several sites people associate with Beaufort are in Port Royal.
“We love Beaufort and have very good relations with them, but we want to stand out,” said Willis. The branding effort aims to do just that.
The town, located between Beaufort River and Battery Creek, is particularly proud of its natural environment. Its cypress wetland — a rare sight in the middle of an urban setting — holds a variety of plant and bird species, making it attractive to birdwatchers, especially with the presence of endangered birds like the wood stork.
“It’s a huge hit because a large amount of birds that had left the area are back,” Willis said. Word of the birds return has spread as far as Savannah, Ga.
Port Royal has a series of walking trails and boardwalks, providing an extensive look at its natural and historical sites. An amphitheater, also serving as a venue, and observation tower, plus other overlooks are a part of that network. A community beach called the Sands is a popular stop, too, and allows visitors to drive their cars onto it. Willis noted people will park their cars and listen to music as they enjoy the beach.
Another unique aspect of the city is its municipally run shrimp dock.
“You can walk out and see working shrimp boats,” Willis said. Operations for the dock were taken over four or five years ago from the port authority. Port Royal wanted to keep the shrimp docks in operation to maintain that unique aspect of the town. “It’s authentic and iconic,” he said. “Public-owned shrimp docks are dwindling.”
He noted while the past year has not been lucrative for shrimpers, locals are hopeful things will pick up again.
While preserving its past and natural resources, Port Royal has several development projects in the works. There are plans to renovate and expand the police station to accommodate a larger staff and add more storage. The town’s sewer system will also be expanding in order to reach a group of commercial buildings.
Another project that has been on the burner promises to bring new life to Port Royal’s deep port, one of the deepest on the East Coast. It has been closed since 2004 because, unlike other area ports, “The one here just never took off,” Willis said.
The project hit a bit of a snag when the economy declined, but once it comes to fruition, the port will offer a variety of uses. Three hundred to 350 housing units, a slip marina, land for mixed commercial properties and a hotel site are planned, as well as a public promenade tying (the port) to the Sands so the public will have access to that waterfront.
Between branding efforts and redevelopment, Willis said, the town hopes to distinguish itself as a destination for businesses or individuals to call home due to its distinct features and personality. “Yes, we are quirky, and we are proud of it.”