Hilton Head moves forward with rowing, sailing site without private backing

info@islandpacket.comJanuary 3, 2014 

Plans for the proposed rowing and sailing center on Hilton Head Island's Squire Pope Road include a 1,400 square foot picnic pavillion, fenced boat storage, a floating dock and restrooms.

Costs to build a rowing and sailing site at Skull Creek on Hilton Head Island continue to climb as private backing has failed to materialize.

The town is poised to spend about $1.2 million, with no significant financial contribution from the private sector -- despite earlier promises from rowing and sailing enthusiasts.

Council had set aside about $885,000 to build the community park off Squire Pope Road that would offer boaters access to the creek. But higher than expected bids to build a handicapped-accessible pier and floating docks, which could be used for fishing, crabbing and launching boats, have driven up the cost, town manager Steve Riley said.

Council approved a $300,000 increase for the project Dec. 17.

The town asked contractors for bids Monday to build the park's remaining features: a picnic pavilion, playground, fire pit, fenced boat storage, restrooms and parking.

Responses are due Jan. 30. Construction would probably begin near the end of February and take 120 days, said assistant town engineer Bryan McIlwee.

In 2007, the town offered to pay $1 million for a sailing and rowing center, contingent upon boating groups kicking in $500,000 in private donations.

Over time, however, the fundraising goal dropped, and donations never panned out. The nonprofit group created as the private half of the public-private partnership has just $20,000 set aside to build a storage shed for the group's boats and equipment, according to its cochairman John Rumsey.

Some of the sailboats would be available for rent to experienced sailors, Rumsey said. Use of the rowing equipment would be limited to rowing teams, said Luther Strayer, a member of the Palmetto Rowing Club and coach of the Hilton Head Island crew team.

Strayer said the rowing club would continue to provide "a learn-to-row program" on Broad Creek at the Old Oyster Factory restaurant, where it and the high school crew team currently store their boats. The high school team will move to the new rowing and sailing site, which Strayer says is more conducive to competitive training.

Plans call for the Hilton Head Island Recreation Association to manage programming at the center, with help from rowing and sailing clubs and coaches.

The town would pay $67,000 a year toward the center's operation. The boating groups would not contribute for such expenses, according to Riley.

Some on Town Council have chafed at the park's cost, which has increased by about $550,000 since the project was approved in 2012.

Councilwoman Kim Likins said during a council workshop in November that she is tired of being asked to pay more and more for what had been proposed as a private-public partnership.

"Individuals came forward and made commitments they're not willing to live up to, and now the expectation is we'll come in and pick up the pieces," Likins said.

But after years of devoting resources to the project, it's time to move forward rather than prolong discussions, Riley and Mayor Drew Laughlin have said. Both said the project is more than simply a boating center, but rather a waterfront community park for the north end of the island.

The project has been discussed for nearly a decade. The town has spent $102,000 on design and environmental studies, $82,000 to remove abandoned boats and a dilapidated dock from the site, and $5.8 million to buy the 7.75 acres the park will be built on.

The project will be paid for largely with proceeds from a special tax district used to build parks, improve roads, extend sewer service and other uses.

"I gave up on the idea there would be a private part to this a long time ago," Laughlin said Thursday. "I don't know that the frustration has boiled to the point where we abandon the project.

"I'm a little ambivalent about it at this point. I think there's value in having a community dock available to folks. ... But if we were back at square one and you pitched this to me, and knew what it was going to cost, I'm not sure I'd go down that road. But here we are. We've already sunk money into the land, and not making an investment to where it contributes value to the community doesn't make sense to me."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom

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