Heavy-hitters rally around ambitious plan for new Hilton Head Island festival

tbarton@islandpacket.comSeptember 8, 2012 

Educators, arts groups and business leaders have rallied behind an ambitious plan for a new festival they hope will turn Hilton Head Island into a cultural and intellectual mecca.

Organizers of similar programs elsewhere say Hilton Head leaders have an enormous undertaking ahead of them.

Those behind "Renaissance at Hilton Head Island" say they understand the challenges but are confident they'll succeed and bring economic revival.Organizers envision a nine- to 10-day public event that would begin next fall. As many as 2,500 visitors per week would be attracted by lectures, panel discussions and workshops, according to Allen Ward, chairman of the Hilton Head Island Institute, which is leading the effort. Each week will have a theme and pattern, such as foreign affairs, regional history, environmental community planning, and small-business development, Ward said.

The idea sprang from recommendations unveiled in 2010 by a mayoral task force to stem economic decline on Hilton Head. Among the suggestions was an institute to aid the island in becoming a regional destination for culture and the arts, lifelong learning, and community planning that meshes with the natural environment.

MORAL, FINANCIAL SUPPORT

Led by members of the Greater Island Council --an invitation-only group examining the recommendations from the mayoral task force -- the institute was awarded a $65,000 grant by the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry last month -- $32,500 to be given outright and $32,500 available as a matching grant. The council provided $2,500 in seed money.

Carolyn Torgersen, the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry's vice president for marketing and communications, recognizes that creating the institute will take "a tremendous amount of work," but believes in has potential for promoting the island's economy.

"The history of the Community Foundation is one of leadership and funding support of innovative, significant undertakings that will help build on the economic growth of the community," Torgersen said.

"The foundation gives money to a broad base of efforts, including community and economic development projects, and feels this effort fits nicely with other community development initiatives we have supported." She cited as examples $150,000 given to the Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association for a revolving loan program, and $2,500 to the Hilton Head Regional Partnership Foundation for a "virtual job bank."

The festival has received endorsements from Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Bill Miles and University of South Carolina Beaufort Chancellor Jane Upshaw.

"I believe this initiative will have a very positive impact on the island's economy and its quality of life," Miles wrote in a letter endorsing the concept. "The Mayor's Task Force's goal of becoming the premier destination in the Southeast and that of the chamber's are one in the same, and Renaissance will help us get there. The Chamber enthusiastically endorses the idea and will do what it can to assist in its success."

The Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, Island School Council for the Arts and the Hilton Head Choral Society also have pledged support.

"Programming will increase the number of visitors coming to the island and will do so by offering more than beach, tennis and golf," said Mary Briggs, president and CEO of the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, which would perform during the festival.

"(The festival) will help ensure the economic vitality of the hospitality, retirement and business sectors of the economy, (and) will revitalize the image of Hilton Head Island as having a vital, energetic, educated and innovative citizenry," she said.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

That's a good start, says George Murphy, chief marketing officer for the Chautauqua Institution in New York, which runs a similar program. However, it's only a start. Organizers will need about $100,000, as much as a year of planning, 20 to 30 volunteers and staff members, and close coordination with community groups.

"A speaker circuit is easy, but if you want to turn it into community engagement with learning and dialogue, it's much trickier," Murphy said.

The Chautauqua Institution is a summer community in southwestern New York on Chautauqua Lake. It specializes in arts, education, religion and recreation and hosts more than 2,200 events over nine weeks and 170,000 guests each summer.

"Extensive mix of programming seems to be what's unique to what we do and brings people back year after year," Murphy said. "But providing that can be difficult to orchestrate. You have to have the right balance of programming and a community that's fired up and behind it."

Briggs and Torgersen believe the Hilton Head group is up to the challenge.

"This project has developed substantial momentum and has attracted respected members of the Greater Island Council to carry it forward," Torgersen said. "The board of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry believes that the startup costs are critical to the success of this project."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

Related content:

Community Foundation of the Lowcountry

Chautauqua Institution

The Aspen Institute

Hilton Head group pushing for island 'renaissance': Aug. 27, 2012

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