Town vote gave final piece to Heritage puzzle

June 16, 2011 

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It took 15 minutes and six votes for Heritage Classic Foundation chairman Simon Fraser to place the final piece of a complicated puzzle that's taken 24 months to put together.

The Hilton Head Island Town Council voted Thursday to fill a "crucial" gap that was quickly followed by a long-awaited announcement that Royal Bank of Canada will be the title sponsor of the Heritage golf tournament through 2016. The Boeing Company will be a local presenting sponsor.

The council convened at noon. By about 12:20 p.m. Fraser was out the door headed to Harbour Town Golf Links, where the tournament has been played since 1969. At 1 p.m. Gov. Nikki Haley took the podium, and PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said the four words so many were eager to hear: "The Heritage is safe."

The council voted 6-0, with Kim Likins absent, to approve a five-year, $3.2 million deal to buy TV advertising spots to help secure RBC's and Boeing's sponsorships.

Fraser said money from the two companies alone would have left the tournament with an annual shortage of $1.2 million to $1.3 million as it tried to meet expenses and its obligations to the PGA Tour, which include the ad buy.

Organizers were able to find more than $600,000 in cost savings and needed the town to cover most of the rest, he said.

The announcement ends a search of nearly two years for a replacement for previous title sponsor Verizon. "Every piece of this puzzle had to work for this to work; so it's a true partnership," said Jim Little, chief brand and communications officer for RBC.

Think of a three-legged stool, Fraser said.

"We would not be here without the actions taken by the town of Hilton Head, and Beaufort County last year and the town of Hilton Head today, and I want to thank the support of the mayor and Town Council," Fraser said at Thursday's news conference.

The tournament secured a spot on the PGA Tour's schedule this year without a title sponsor by pledging all $4 million of its reserves and securing $1 million commitments from both the town and Beaufort County.

Under the new deal, the town will pay $562,500 the first year, with a 5-percent increase per year in the following years, for eight of the 64 ad spots split between CBS and The Golf Channel that normally go to a title sponsor.

"It's a small price to pay compared to losing the golf tournament," Mayor Drew Laughlin said.

A 2010 Clemson University study shows the tournament has an annual economic impact of about $82 million. Typically, the Heritage Classic Foundation also donates about $1 million to charities, many of them local.

"It's a good day for Hilton Head. Obviously, the town would prefer not to have to do this, but it's become a necessity," Laughlin said. "And we expect to get benefit of the ads by promoting Hilton Head Island. This tournament has been part of Hilton Head Island. This is a big part of the fabric of our community."

Laughlin said it's uncertain how the town would pay for the proposed ad-buy. He favors using a mix of accommodations and hospitality taxes, with the possibility of dipping again into an emergency advertising reserve account, he said.The town of Bluffton might also pitch in. Laughlin and tournament organizers said Bluffton officials have indicated their willingness to pay one-tenth of the town ad-buy -- about $56,000 for the first year. Details have yet to be worked out and the Bluffton Town Council would have to approve such a deal, Laughlin said.

Haley applauded Laughlin and the rest of council for their work.

"The mayor was great yesterday. We basically needed to pull on the mayor some, and he was there every step of the way -- the Town Council, the County Council, the (legislative) delegation," she said during the news conference. "We showed that 'can't' is not an option ... and all I can say is, God bless the Heritage, because that's going to be one party next year."

Follow reporter Tom Barton on Twitter at twitter.com/eyeonhiltonhead.

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