Bluffton mayor Johnson has no firm plan for repaying stadium money

March 16, 2008 

Bluffton Mayor Hank Johnston said Saturday he currently has no firm strategy for raising the money to pay $183,000 still owed on the expansion of the Bluffton High School baseball stadium, whose financing he personally guaranteed.

The Beaufort County School District provided $305,000, interest-free, in 2003 to expand the stadium from 250 seats to 1,000 -- 400 of them covered by an awning. At that time, Johnston said he hoped the expanded stadium would host community events and possibly a semi-professional baseball team. The stadium was named after the mayor.

That same year, Johnston -- as a private citizen -- pledged to raise the funds necessary to repay the school district, offering to pay out of his own pocket if necessary. So that others could also contribute, Johnston also set up a fund -- The Community Stadium Fund --managed by the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry.

To date, two payments have been made. The third was originally scheduled to be made last month, but the school district recently extended by three years the repayment schedule.

The loan initially was scheduled to be paid off in 2010. Under the amended schedule, it doesn't have to be repaid until 2013. The extension of the repayment schedule means that instead of having to repay the school district $61,000 annually for the next three years, $30,500 must be repaid each of the next six years.

The stadium repayment fund has less than $10,000 since the last payment was made more than a year ago, a spokesman for the Community Foundation of Lowcountry said.

Johnston said he has no large-scale fundraisers scheduled, but plans to write letters seeking donations. He said he does not plan to pay off the $183,000 ahead of schedule himself.

For each of the past two years, the $61,000 payments have been made. When the money in the fund was insufficient, Johnston said, he made up the difference. He said he plans to continue doing that for future payments. The mayor said he didn't know how much he personally contributed to the $122,000 already paid.

The Community Foundation of the Lowcountry's list of donors to the fund includes four private citizens -- including Johnston -- as well as two firms. One of the firms that contributed was BHR Acquisition Co., whose owner is listed on Beaufort County Assessor's

Office records as developer John Reed. Buckwalter Commercial, co-owned by Reed and developer Tom Zinn, also contributed.

The Bluffton High School Booster Club has not contributed to reducing the debt on the baseball stadium, said member George Cyrilla.

By comparison, supporters of Hilton Head Island High School's baseball team contribute up to $10,000 a year to reduce the nearly $70,000 debt remaining on improvements made to there, said Mike Manesiotis, vice president of the Hilton Head High School Booster Club.

Johnston said he has not heard any discussions of the school district forgiving the debt, but Manesiotis said if Bluffton's debts are forgiven, Hilton Head's also should be.

"If their improvement is paid for, ours should be, too," he said.

Johnston said "debt forgiveness has never been an item of discussion."

Johnston acknowledges only a handful of community events have been held in Bluffton.

"There are not as many community events ... as I had envisioned," Johnston said.

But, he remains optimistic.

"In the long run, it will be worth the extra money," he said adding:"I think it's a heck of a deal for the school."

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