Town of Hilton Head needs to salvage arts community, survey suggests

dburley@islandpacket.comApril 12, 2014 

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    The Town of Hilton Head Island will hold a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. April 22 at Town Hall to discuss the arts survey.

The Town of Hilton Head Island should play a major role in supporting struggling arts and entertainment groups if it wants a flourishing cultural scene, according to a new study.

The study, commissioned by the town and released Friday, suggests public dollars be used to repair and expand arts organizations, including about $3.5 million for the cash-strapped Arts Center of Coastal Carolina.

It also recommends the town create an agency to focus solely on the arts and change the way it gives money to arts, entertainment and cultural groups.

Town officials say the study is merely a piece of an ongoing effort to get the island's arts center and other groups on solid financial footing.

"For me, this lays out a framework for discussion," Mayor Drew Laughlin said. "Here are the challenges, here are some things that might help. These are simply ideas."

The town hired consulting firm Cultural Planning Group in the fall to conduct the study. It cost about $80,000.

Along with studying similar municipalities nationwide, the firm held public meetings, interviewed more than 70 residents, and posted an online survey that was distributed through the town's website and council members' and arts organizations' email chains, according to the study. About 2,200 people responded to the survey.

The consultants based their suggestions on other market studies and survey responses.

Compared to cities such as Charleston and Sarasota, Fla., government support for the arts on Hilton Head has been limited, the study concluded.

"Overall there is no consistent support to foster a thriving ecology," the study said.

To fix this, the town should create a cultural affairs office that would act as a hub for the island's arts community.

The office would help with marketing, maintenance, hold programs in local schools and establish a "signature" arts event, such as Charleston's Spoleto, an outdoor performance-art festival in the spring.

Asked whether establishing such an office would be possible with current town staff, town manager Steve Riley said there might be some give-and-take.

"To do one thing, you won't have the resources to do another," he said. "Decisions would have to be made."

The proposed agency would also change the way accommodations tax revenue is disbursed.

Currently, there's confusion over whether these funds -- the primary funding source for art groups -- can be used for services other than marketing, the study says. The revenue is supposed to be used to support tourism. The study asks the town to set aside some of the money for operating expenses for the arts groups.

To pay for this, the study suggests increasing the real estate transfer tax rate -- a tax charged on property transactions -- by .25 percent or a "small property tax millage increase." Another possibility is raising the accommodations tax -- a levy on overnight lodging to fund programs that promote tourism and attract visitors -- from 10 percent to 11 percent. The national average is 12 percent, the study says.

That would also help pay for the $3.5 million to repair the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina.

The $10.2 million building opened in March 1996 with no money set aside for building maintenance. Center officials have since put about $2.5 million into the building by borrowing, but maintenance and repairs are still needed and expected to cost another $3.5 million, the study says.

Laughlin said he supports the arts community, but he hasn't made up his mind about spending more public money on it.

"There are a lot of demands on public dollars, and there are folks who think public dollars should only be spent on essential public service," he said.

Supporters of the arts center say it deserves more money from the town because it enhances tourism and the quality of life for residents.

In December, the consulting firm released preliminary results of the survey, with about 2,000 responses. Sixty percent said supporting and funding cultural facilities should be a high priority for the town.

Some criticized the survey as self-fulfilling and its results as unscientific.

"It was difficult to discern if the survey was a good random sampling of the community at-large or whether it had been answered by art enthusiasts," Councilwoman Kim Likins, who supports arts in the community, said Friday.

Riley said the new study provides much more depth than the survey.

"We have some good information here, I believe, to discuss going forward."

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

Related content:

October survey to gauge support for island arts, Sept. 7, 2013

Hilton Head residents say town should play major role in supporting arts, culture, Oct. 28, 2013

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