Public short-changed on rowing, sailing site

Hilton Head Island site is town-financed after private sector fails to keep its promises.

info@islandpacket.comJanuary 11, 2014 

In 2007, Hilton Head Island Town Council hatched a smart plan. It offered to pay $1 million for a sailing and rowing center off Squire Pope Road -- if -- rowing and sailing groups that adamantly endorsed the project would kick in $500,000 for construction and another $1.5 million for an endowment to support operational costs.

The arrangement ensured that those who most wanted the project to come to fruition and who would most benefit from its existence to have some skin in the game. And those town taxpayers, who had no interest in sailing, rowing or boat access to Skull Creek, could take comfort in knowing that the private sector had significantly bankrolled the amenity instead of it all coming from public dollars.

At least, that's the way it was supposed to work.

Fast forward to today. The nonprofit group created by boating groups to serve as the private half of the public-private partnership has raised only $20,000 of the promised $500,000. There's no more talk of an endowment.

That $20,000 will pay for a storage shed for boats and equipment owned by the groups. Translation: Town residents can't use it.

Some of the sailboats will be available for rent, but only to experienced sailors. And use of the rowing equipment will be limited to rowing teams. A "learn-to-row program" to introduce novices to rowing will continue to be offered on Broad Creek at the Old Oyster Factory restaurant, not at the new site.

For the general public, this amenity, which is now town-financed, provides docks to fish, crab and launch boats as well as picnic tables and a playground.

It's debatable whether the cost is worth the amenities gained for those not interested in sailing or rowing.

Meanwhile, Town Council is overspending when it should be reining in costs on the niche project. Costs have increased by about $550,000 since 2012.

Council approved a $300,000 increase for the project Dec. 17 after bids came in unexpectedly high to build a handicapped-accessible pier and floating docks. That's on top of the nearly $6 million Town Council has spent during the past decade to purchase the 7.75-acre site, prep it and design the project.

We agree with Mayor Drew Laughlin that it's too bad the clock can't be turned back.

"I think there's value in having a community dock available to folks," Laughlin recently said. "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."

Laughlin is right. The only thing to do now is plod forward and complete the project.

But here's hoping Town Council moves ahead a little wiser, wary of private sector promises on future projects and committed to sticking to a budget.

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