Arts study offers plan too grand for Hilton Head

Town Council should consider modest changes to help arts groups. Otherwise, there will be no buy-in from taxpayers.

newsroom@islandpacket.comApril 18, 2014 

A new study by Cultural Planning Group, a consulting firm hired by the Town of Hilton Head Island, encourages the town to become an arts destination, subsidized by the town.

The study urges Town Council to give $3.5 million to the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina for repairs and upgrades; to create a cultural affairs office that would market, maintain and aid the arts community and to help develop an international arts and cultural festival like Charleston's annual Spoleto festival and Miami's Art Basel.

The organization has also recommended that the town build a mid-sized performing arts center that arts groups could share and an outdoor amphitheater.

It's a grandiose plan that might work in some medium-sized markets but not a small island where a substantial chunk of residents subscribe to a limited-government approach. We urge Town Council to do as Mayor Drew Laughlin has suggested and use the study as a starting point for discussions on how to help the arts groups, not a blueprint for the future. Some recommendations may work while others should be rejected outright.

The survey attempted to compare Hilton Head to "similar" towns including Charleston, Carmel, Calif., Scottsdale, Ariz. and Sarasota, Fla. It's finding: the town of Hilton Head Island provides limited support for its arts groups compared to these other cities.

There's a good reason for that difference. Hilton Head Island has a very different history and a different citizenry than these other cities. It did not become a town until 30 years ago, primarily formed to halt unwanted development. Many of its residents, who believe government should only provide basic services, are unlikely to bankroll a new arts center when the current one is operating in the red or underwrite an international festival when the Atlantic Ocean and the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing are already here and drawing tourists.

True, town government's sphere of influence has grown since incorporation including significant financial support for the arts.

Consider:

  • The town doles out $2 million to $3 million each year to arts groups. The money comes from the accommodations tax, a fee on overnight lodging. Both large and small groups receive money.

  • Town Council has also made special arrangements to help the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. Last year, Town Council gave the center a $346,000 advance in accommodations-tax money so it could get through the winter.

  • We do agree with the study that a case might be made for the town to raise it accommodations-tax rate from 10 percent to 11 or 12 percent to provide more dollars for the arts groups that have struggled during the down economy.

    The survey suggests increasing the rate to 12 percent, which is the national average, to yield $3 million more annually. Since visitors pay the tax, residents would not be burdened by the increase.

    But that's where the town's involvement must end. Other study suggestions to increase the real estate transfer tax rate or increase the tax millage rate are unacceptable to a sizable chunk of residents and should be rejected.

    Instead, arts groups must tap donors, seek grants and rethink budgets to make ends meet.

    This isn't Carmel. And it probably never will be.

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