Supporters feel snubbed by island council's capital priorities

bheffernan@islandpacket.comDecember 12, 2012 

Supporters of a proposed aquatics center near the beach expressed frustration Wednesday after Hilton Head Island Town Council tabled the project.

Despite investing about $115,000 in studies, plans and proposals, council members said the town probably can't afford to proceed with the $7.6 million project now because of other higher-priorty projects.

"It ... seems unfair that we've been working on this project for a half-dozen years, and then all of a sudden the arts center has a tremendous hiccup, and we get put on the back burner because they have made some bad decisions," said Bubba Gillis, president of Hilton Head Island Recreation Association's board of directors.

The Arts Center of Coastal Carolina asked Town Council on Oct. 31 to help pay nearly $5 million in long-term debt and building repair expenses. Addressing the short-term financial direction of the center is one of the council's top priorities for 2013; the aquatics facility is not.

"We feel like we've done what we're supposed to, year after year after year ... and the Arts Center has not. And now, they get bumped in front of us," Gillis said.

Gillis said some of his comments were personal and didn't reflect the official position of the recreation center board.

"(The aquatics facility) is something that a significant group of people in the community have worked hard for, and, frankly, we as a town have put in a considerable amount of funding," Councilwoman Kim Likins said.

However, the town has more immediate needs, and delaying the aquatics project "was clearly the right thing to do right now," Likins said

Council members agree that other capital projects planned for 2013 will exhaust the town's money and staff time, Mayor Drew Laughlin said.

"I think (the rec center) would have been tabled for this year, anyway," Laughlin said.

Major capital projects for next year include the Chaplin linear park and boardwalk and redevelopments at The Mall at Shelter Cove and Coligny Beach.

The upcoming county property reassessment also creates uncertain terrain for an investment in the aquatics park, Laughlin said.

Property values, which were last assessed three years ago, are expected to decline because of the recession, which could lead to difficulty raising revenue.

The aquatics center is part of a three-part renovation proposed for the recreation center. Other improvements include expanding the gymnasium and a new parking lot. Town Council gave both higher priority than the aquatics center.

Original plans for the aquatics center put it next to the rec center, but consultants later recommended a free-standing location at Chaplin Park, which they say would offer more room for expansion.

The proposal features an eight-lane competition pool, three-lane warm-up pool and "splash pad" play area for children and young teenagers.

Gillis and recreation center executive director Frank Soule said they favor of the Chaplin location, although it would cost more to build and operate.

In the meantime, the town's only public pool, at the recreation center, will continue to serve a population almost double the size it was built for 25 years ago.

"I know the arts people say that people come to Hilton Head for the arts -- that it's a destination for the arts. I don't buy that," said Gillis. "They may come here, and it may enhance their stay, but I don't think they choose Hilton Head over another destination because of an arts center."

Heather Rath, vice-chairwoman of the town's Parks and Recreation Commission, said Tuesday "I would hope the Town Council would put families and visitors at the forefront of the decisions that they're making, especially families with young children, because those are the families that will stay for the long term." She, too, said she was expressing her own views and not those of the commission.

Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

Related links

Swimming in projects, Hilton Head Town Council passes on aquatic center, Dec. 1, 2012

Chaplin Park site eyed for aquatics center, Nov. 10, 2012.

Tax returns, financial statements paint gloomy picture of arts center finances, Nov. 17, 2012.

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