Time to make up minds on tax district spending

info@islandpacket.comAugust 4, 2013 

About 200 people gathered at Hilton Head Island Town Hall on Tuesday night to discuss plans to revitalize the Coligny area.

FILE PHOTO/STAFF

Arguing about Hilton Head Island's tax-increment financing district started in 1999, the year it was created, and it hasn't stopped since.

In the beginning, it was about whether this kind of special tax district to pay for public projects to spur redevelopment was a good idea, particularly when it siphoned tax dollars from other public entities -- Beaufort County, the Beaufort County School District and the Hilton Head Public Service District -- and from town operations.

Town officials said it was a way to keep Hilton Head-generated tax dollars on the island instead of sending them off to be spent across the county.

Today, it's about deciding how to spend the remaining approximately $7.5 million before the district's 15-year life comes to an end next year.

The year 1999 seems like three economies ago; we stopped partying in a growth market some years back. That makes deciding today what to do in the Coligny area, the heart of Hilton Head's critical tourism industry, all the more important. A bad call could be worse than no call. The town should not act simply because money is there to be spent. It should carefully consider what to do and listen to residents and commercial property owners. If it can't come up with a good plan in time to meet the deadline, then divide the money among the town, county, school district and public service district. Better to let it go, then to embark on a plan that we'll regret later.

We're not optimistic about reaching consensus. Hilton Head folks haven't been able to make up their collective minds, despite, as town manager Steve Riley noted, 19 iterations of what to do there. The expected private redevelopment of nearby shopping centers never materialized. That, too, is despite very concerted efforts on the part of the town and private property owners at several points.

A lot has been accomplished with money from the district over the past 13-plus years, but the uncertainty of what to do with the remaining portion points to the problem with this tax district from its conception: No single, specific project that residents, officials and private property owners could get their heads around and their pocketbooks behind.

The district, as drawn in 1999, includes 1,400 mostly commercial acres along the Palmetto Bay Road-Pope Avenue corridor, along Mathews Drive and in the Stoney, Squire Pope and Chaplin neighborhoods. Town officials said then the south-island area was included in part because the north-island areas couldn't generate enough tax revenue for the projects planned there.

The latest, most concrete proposal for the Coligny area is to build a new University of South Carolina Beaufort facility. As first proposed in 2012, the town would donate land and contribute money toward construction of a building that would house classrooms, a lecture hall, a demonstration kitchen for culinary instruction, library space, faculty offices, a lounge and food service, providing instruction for nearly 400 juniors and seniors enrolled in the university's hospitality management program.

Town officials said they thought some of the dated buildings in the Coligny area eventually would be rehabbed by their owners, thanks to a boost in business from students, retirees and hospitality workers taking courses at the new facility.

But at a meeting Tuesday, many residents expressed legitimate concerns about parking and traffic problems that could be exacerbated by the proposed USCB facility. For their part, Mayor Drew Laughlin and USCB officials touted its potential. Laughlin said it could be culturally and economically "transformative."

No doubt we can talk in circles about what to do in that area for another 15 years. Town Council is going to have make a decision and live with consequences, or call it a day on this tax district. That wouldn't be the worse thing to happen.

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