Hilton Head group proposes 6,500-seat concert hall to revitalize arts

dburley@islandpacket.comMay 18, 2014 

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A group of Hilton Head Island businessmen has ambitious plans to energize a cash-strapped arts community, proposing a 6,500-seat amphitheater aimed at drawing world-class performers to the Lowcountry.

The concert hall would be the centerpiece of a 60-acre complex, seat 1,500 people indoors and as many as 5,000 on outdoor lawn space with views of the stage.

Those backing the project, unveiled Thursday, say it would attract top-tier artists like Yo-Yo Ma and James Taylor and provide a home for local acts like the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and the Hilton Head Choral Society.

It also would boost the island's economy, eventually bringing in more money than the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing golf tournament, according to a study commissioned by the group.

But it would cost money, too.

Early estimates show the complex could cost between $40 million and $55 million, half of that paid with tax dollars, according to members of Community Vision of Hilton Head, the group behind the project.

Once built, it might never become entirely self-sufficient, group members said.

"We have a chance to do major things here, but it's not going to fly without a strong public-private collaboration," said Community Vision president Walter Graver.

Group members say the theater would be different than the struggling Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, built 18 years ago and largely subsidized by the Town of Hilton Head Island.

The concert hall would host more musical performances and star lecturers, and few Broadway-type shows, they said.

It would nourish what they call the public desire for a thriving arts scene on the island.

Some town officials who support the arts are skeptical.

"Nothing would make me happier than having an arts facility like they describe," Mayor Drew Laughlin said. "I just have my doubts."

BIGGER VENUE NEEDED?

Community Vision members contend the arts' success on the island depends largely on venue size.

"I've seen what can happen to a small town with a big arts vision," group member Dan Castro said. "We're there, we have the arts. We just don't have the major performing arts center."

Vision members say the proposed concert hall's capacity would draw famous acts that wouldn't perform at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. And it's year-round schedule would ensure money and patrons flow consistently to the island.

Organizers project 212,000 attendees in the theater's first year. By the third year, there would be more than 250,000, they say.

"If you program it (with star acts), they will come," Castro said, adding that there are Hilton Head residents with the expertise to book such acts.

Along with the hall, the proposed complex would have 4,000 grass and 500 paved parking spaces, a botanical garden and room for expansion.

Though nothing is definite, the group has some locations in mind for the amphitheater. Options include about 105 acres of town-owned land on the Planter's Row golf course at Port Royal Golf Club or town-owned land on Jenkins Island near Windmill Harbour.

The top choice is Honey Horn, with its sprawling grass fields on the north end of the island, members said.

For Laughlin, Honey Horn would be a "nonstarter."

"I think it's a great asset as it is," he said, referring to the site's open green space.

Attempts Friday to reach Robin Swift, spokeswoman for the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn, were unsuccessful.

THE MONEY

Group members suggested several ways to pay for the venture.

Graver, the group's president, mentioned the proposed 1 percent sales tax being discussed by Beaufort County. The group could try to get the concert hall on the list of capital projects that would be paid for with the tax, he said.

Another option is to raise money by selling bonds or through a future tax referendum.

Once built, it would receive money for maintenance and other needs through annual accommodations-tax funding from the town, member Paul Gibson said.

"We see no ongoing need for dramatic continued public support," Graver said. "We're not looking for major handouts."

Laughlin said there is no way to pay for construction without voter support, possibly by a tax.

After it's built, upkeep for seating, lighting, stage and sound equipment could be expensive for the public. "That might be something you could overcome if you had a high level of assurance that (the amphitheater) would be used most of the time and generate the revenue they anticipate," he said. "I've never been convinced of that."

Gibson argued that the amphitheater's benefits would outweigh the public dollars spent.

He anticipates it would be more profitable in its second year than the Heritage and deliver the island economy more than $500 million in its first five years, according to studies by University of South Carolina Beaufort hospitality-management professor John Salazar.

WHAT ABOUT THE ARTS CENTER?

Graver acknowledged the existing arts center is the "elephant in the room."

The $10.2 million, 350-seat theater has leaked money since it opened in 1996. Center officials have borrowed about $2.5 million for repairs, but more work is still needed.

A recent study commissioned by the town called for $3.5 million to repair the stage, among other improvements. The town has proposed bailing out the center with $5 million drawn from the potential countywide sales tax.

It might be difficult to convince Hilton Head Islanders soured by the current center to spend more public money on another facility, Vision members concede.

"What we're proposing is not going to happen if there's not some resolution to the arts center ... even if it means bulldozing it," Graver said. "In my amateur opinion, it should become a local theater, ... but something must be done."

Attempts Thursday and Friday to reach arts center president and CEO Kathleen Bateson were unsuccessful.

Graver and others maintain that their project is larger than the center, more focused and will be run more efficiently.

"All endeavors are fraught with troubles," he said. "But if we do nothing, then things will continue to slide."

Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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