Local civic leaders wary of Hardeeville casino proposal

gmartin@islandpacket.comJanuary 17, 2012 

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Several politicians and Beaufort County business leaders remained mostly tight-lipped -- but a bit concerned -- Tuesday regarding a proposed casino and hotel complex near Hardeeville.

The development's plans, presented before a joint meeting of the city of Hardeeville and Jasper County councils last Thursday, call for construction of the state's first casino within Hilton Head Lakes, a residential community on U.S. 278. It would be owned by Cherokee Indians.

A consulting firm for the developers said the complex -- which would include a 400-room luxury hotel, dining, an events center and access to a golf course -- would employ 2,250 and create $92 million in wages, salaries, and benefits for Jasper County.

But some also worry the development would attract unsavory satellite businesses.

"On the surface of it, it doesn't sound all that appealing," Hilton Head Mayor Drew Lauglin said, adding, "but I really don't know enough about it to say one way or the other."

Jim Wescott, executive director of the Lowcountry & Resort Islands Tourism Commission, said he already has retreated from his initial optimism.

"When I first heard the news, I thought, 'Great!,'" Wescott said. "This could bring millions of dollars to an area that badly needs it."

"But then I developed mixed feelings. The businesses that tend to grow up around casinos aren't always wholesome, and the clientele aren't necessarily always welcome."

Jasper County Administrator Andrew Fulghum said the county has regulations in place that could mitigate the proliferation of establishments that sell alcohol or "sexually oriented businesses" around the casino.

However, Gov. Nikki Haley's office quickly condemned the plans last week: "The governor has no intention of signing any memorandum of understanding that would enable casino gambling," said Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for the first-term Republican.

Godfrey elaborated Tuesday.

"The governor desperately wants to bring jobs to Hardeeville," he said in a statement.

"She works every single day to recruit new jobs, expand existing companies and put South Carolinians back to work. However, she believes South Carolina does not have to settle and that there is a better way."

The casino would require approval from Haley and the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Beaufort County Council Chairman Weston Newton said he's withholding judgment but has "fairly significant reservations" about the project.

"I just have some general philosophical concerns with regard to having casino gambling in South Carolina," he said.

Newton also wonders if existing roads can handle the projected traffic increase.

Beaufort mayor Billy Keyserling said he has no plans to weigh in on the casino with state officials. If Hardeeville officials ask him to support a casino, he said he would talk with Beaufort City Council members about doing so.

Bill Miles, president and CEO of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment, citing a "need to evaluate all potential impact metrics and quality-of-life issues" the casino would entail.

Miles added he would discuss the development at a chamber board meeting later this month but would not speculate whether the chamber will take an official position on the casino plans.

Cary Corbitt, president of the Lowcountry Golf Course Owner's Association, said he wants to reserve judgment until "more is learned about its viability," but he added that securing the requisite support would be "a monumental task" for the developers.

Not everyone was as pessimistic, however.

John Robinson, newly elected president of the Hilton Head Realtors Association, said that "it appears it could bring jobs and growth to the area," adding, "we welcome those who see the Lowcountry as an opportunity and choose to make it home."

Bluffton mayor Lisa Sulka said she didn't think the Bluffton Town Council would oppose the casino: "I don't think our town's going to do anything to hinder (the proposal) by any means."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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