Friday, February 03, 2012

Hilton Head council awards bed-tax grants; none for airport or Mitchelville

By TOM BARTON, Island Packet
Published Thursday, February 2, 2012

The bed-tax pie was slightly smaller, but most seemed to walk away with a slice similar to last year's.

Other's left empty-handed.

Hilton Head IslandTown Council on Thursday awarded more than $2.2 million to nonprofits seeking money from accommodations tax revenue for 2012.

By law, the money generated from the state tax on overnight lodging must be used to support tourism on the island.

The town collected about $3.5 million in 2011, about $28,000 shy of revenue collected the year before.

The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce -- already entitled to one-third of the pie -- walked away with another $240,000 to market the island as a golf, culinary and cultural heritage travel destination.

A little more than $1 million already goes to the chamber as the town's designated marketing and promotional arm.

The town took more than $1 million to help pay for general operations and police and code enforcement services to tourists, as well as roadway, pathway and park maintenance that improves safety and access to areas used by visitors. Its portion, though, is smaller than the last three years.

Council earmarked more than $560,000 last year by council to be given this year to the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and the Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association.

That left about $820,000 to award in new grants for the year.

Receiving nothing were the Hilton Head Island Airport and the Mitchelville Preservation Project.

Council rejected the airport's request for $115,237 to help close a shortfall of more than $300,000 for police and fire protection.

Town Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee chairman Bret Martin, in a letter to council, argued the airport has made money over the past three years when not factoring in depreciation and did not need a grant. Town Council agreed.

"It's my goal to make more money available for marketing the island and arts organizations," Mayor Drew Laughlin said. "... Giving money to the airport would be going in the opposite direction."

The airport was able to recover most of its fire and police protection costs until Delta Air Lines left in 2010, said county airports board chairman Joe Mazzei.

"This means we'll have to continue using maintenance dollars for operations," Mazzei said, describing the airport as a "break-even operation."

"We've done as much as we can to have a viable airport that serves as a major entry- and exit-point that brings (tens of) thousands of tourist a year to the island," he said. "It behooves the town to contribute" to its operations.

Council also denied a $100,000 request to develop plans and conduct studies for a memorial park to commemorate Mitchelville, created in 1862 as the first freed-slave village in the United States.

A town-solicited opinion from the S.C. Tourism Expenditure Review Committee says bed-tax revenue cannot be used for such purposes.

As a compromise,council agreed to extend a $50,000 grant given to the group for 2011 into 2012. The money was given to help the group pay start-up costs, including marketing, promotion and preparing the site where the park would be located -- all of which qualify under the law.

The group, though, had only spent $15,000 through Dec. 31 but does expect to spend the full $50,000 by the end of 2012, according to town staff.

Extending the grant will allow the project to continue in the short-term, buying the group more time to raise money for the studies needed to bring the park to fruition, said town manager Steve Riley.

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