Hilton Head Island officials remained hesitant to shoulder more of the financial burden of the cash-strapped Arts Center of Coastal Carolina after a tour of the building Tuesday.
Center leaders have asked the town to help it tackle a $420,000 annual upkeep bill and roughly $2.5 to $3.5 million in needed improvements. They point out that all 17 similar arts centers in the state are supported by governments or universities.
Town and center officials arranged the visit to provide council a firsthand look at the building's condition.
Council members said afterward they still are lukewarm to the idea, noting that many of the area's arts groups are struggling financially and the town cannot afford to subsidize them all.
Instead, the town has hired a consulting firm, Cultural Planning Group of Philadelphia, to suggest ways to get the center and other arts groups on solid financial footing. The group will help the town determine how much public money it should provide to the arts center and other arts organizations, as well as what should be done about the center's building.
The consulting firm will be paid $79,625 for the work. It must present a report to council by the end of January, according to its contract.
"The arts are extremely important to our community, but we need to be all-inclusive when we look at our arts community," Councilwoman Kim Likins said after the tour. She added that any decision about the arts center would be premature without a recommendation from the consultants, including results of a community survey.
"To me, that's going to speak volumes ... (of) how the community feels about supporting the arts with public funding," Likins said.
Other council members agreed. They acknowledged that the center needs extensive renovations, but are leery of doling out support absent a long-term plan for funding it and other arts groups.
Supporters of the arts center say it deserves more money from the town because it enhances the quality of life for residents and draws tourists. The center not only puts on shows in its 350-seat theater, it offers educational workshops for area school students, organizes three community festivals each year and provides gallery space for artists.
The town gave the center a $346,000 advance on an accommodations-tax grant in November to help it prepare for its theater season.
In its 2012-13 fiscal year, the center generated an economic impact of $15 million from tourists traveling from beyond a 50-mile radius, according to data the center provided to Town Council. The data was extrapolated by the Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau.
The $10.2 million building opened in March 1996 without money for building maintenance. Center officials have since poured about $2.5 million into it, beginning in 1999, by borrowing money, but still-needed maintenance and repairs are expected to cost about $2.5 million.
The arts center raised $5 million at the beginning of the year to pay down all of its $2.5 million debt and make improvements. But it could be several years before all of that money is in hand, as more than $2 million of it is in pledges and bequests, which will come only when donors' wills are executed, said arts center board chairman Rich Speer.
Speer and others have suggested the town loan the center $1 million for the most critical repairs -- a new heating and cooling system, a new sound system and repairs to the stage and an outdoor awning -- while pledges and bequests trickle in over the years.
Mayor Drew Laughlin, while not saying he supports such an arrangement, believes it is worth considering.
"At the end of the day I'd be surprised if the consultant said (the arts center) is overstaffed, that they're paying their people too much," he said. "To the contrary, my expectation is they'll come back and say they've been doing a great job holding this thing together on a shoestring (budget) as long as they have."
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.