A strong summer tourism season and successful efforts to recover taxes could mean a post-holiday bonus for some Hilton Head Island arts, cultural and tourism groups.
A town tax panel met Thursday and recommended 23 of 28 applicants receive a share of nearly $3.4 million in town tax collections on short-term lodging to pay for festivals, firework displays and other events that attract tourists. Many of the organizations could get funding increases, but some first-time requests and groups not funded in the past could walk away with nothing.
"We were disciplined in our approach not to get greedy or allocate funds that weren't going to maximize taxpayers return on the investment," Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee chairman Robert Stenhammer said. "The focus was on directing money to groups and efforts that drive tourists to the island beyond a 50-mile radius, enhance their stay and work with other groups."
The committee for the second consecutive year recommended the Hilton Head Island Airport and Hilton Head Island Institute be denied grants.
Beaufort County, which owns the airport, requested $10,000 to help it attract pilots from the Carolinas and Georgia to the island for an "Air Day" at the airport.
The county last year asked for $132,608 to pay for part of its federally mandated police and fire-protection costs at the airport.
Committee members acknowledged the county-owned airport's impact on tourism to the island but deferred to a 2010 opinion by the state Tourism Expenditure Review Committee that said the county cannot use the grants for police and fire-protection. Town Council concurred.
"The only upside is greater marketing of the airport, which I don't think is the best use of our funds," Stenhammer said. "And there has been no good return on investment in funding start-ups, or first-year events."
The view of first-year events drove the committee's decision to again recommend council deny the Hilton Head Island Institute funding, because it is an unproven driver of tourism.
Council disregarded the recommendation last year and awarded the institute $25,000. The institute had asked for $150,000 to spend on the first year of a proposed nine- to 10-day lecture and panel series. The series was held last month but was shortened to three days because of lukewarm interest. Organizers had hoped for 1,000 attendees; only about 200 to 225 people participated.
Committee said the series has potential. The low turnout, though, indicates it needs better marketing and direction, committee members said.
Among the largest awards the committee recommended:
- More than $1 million to the town for police, beach-safety services, code enforcement, and road, park and pathway maintenance.
- $365,000 to the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina to support its operations, plus another $86,000 to replace its heating and cooling system.
- $330,000 to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce to promote island tourism. That's in addition to the more than $1 million the chamber receives each year by law as the town's designated marketing arm.
- $185,000 from the Coastal Discovery Museum for cultural and eco-tourism programs.
Most years, the total amount of money the groups request grows more than the pot of money available.
This year is different, though.
Efforts to collect back taxes and penalties from property owners, legal settlements with online travel companies and corrections to the distribution of state tax revenues is expected to result in a nearly $1 million increase in one-time and recurring money, based on revised estimates, town finance director Susan Simmons said.
In total, the tax panel recommended council dole out about $3.4 million of an expected $3.8 million pot, leaving it with $468,460 in one-time money to distribute for additional tourism marketing and facility improvements. The groups are asking for a total of nearly $3.6 million -- 50 percent more than the $2.4 million awarded last year.
The committee is scheduled to recovene Feb. 18 at 9 a.m. to consider how the remaining money should be used.
"It could be a game changer in the community to expand what we're trying to do," committee member and Hilton Head Island Recreation Association director Frank Soule said. "It's a lot of money to think about what we can to do improve existing facilities and bring more people here."
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Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.