After failing to raise any money to apply for a state grant, a group of businessmen that wants to start a new chamber of commerce on Hilton Head Island will ask the town to help pay for the venture.
But some town officials have bristled at the group's critical appraisal of the island's current tourism-marketing organization, the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
"When does your group move on from Chamber bashing and start talking affirmatively about its (own) program?" Mayor Drew Laughlin wrote to group member Peter Buonaiuto, an island resident and entrepreneur. "I'm more interested in specifics about what your group would do than I am in attacks on others."
The group has been outspoken about its desire to rival the chamber.
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Buonaiuto, owner of Savannah-based social media marketing firm mediafeedia Inc., said the proposed organization would be more transparent than the current chamber. It would provide figures that would allow members and nonmembers to assess how well it spends public money, he said. He said the group will explain how it would do that in a marketing plan to be issued by Aug. 20.
The new organization also would draw more tourists to the area, according to Buonaiuto.
Hilton Head Island-Bluffton chamber spokeswoman Charlie Clark refuted these claims.
She said the organization undergoes annual audits that are available online. She also said the number of visitors to the island is increasing, according to Smith Travel Research and other tourism-research firms.
Some town officials remain skeptical about Buonaiuto's proposal.
In emails with Buonaiuto, also sent to Town Council members, Laughlin took exception to the group's suggestion that Myrtle Beach's success in attracting tourists is evidence the Hilton Head chamber is lagging.
The mayor said Myrtle Beach has a 1-percent sales tax -- 80 percent of which goes to its chamber. It also outspends the town 12-to-1 on tourism, he said.
Buonaiuto responded that Laughlin was "shooting the messenger."
Laughlin emailed back: "I said nothing about the messenger. My understanding is that your group wishes to convince council to give it (designated marketing organization) status and award grant money. I thought perhaps you might want suggestions about how your group might more effectively 'market' itself to what I supposed was its target audience. You are, of course, at liberty to disregard such suggestions."
On Friday, Laughlin said he was not being adversarial. Instead, he wants the group to prove why he "should use (them) and not the chamber."
"Truthfully, I haven't seen a description of what they propose to do," he said. "If you want to be the (designated marketing organization), tell me why."
The group wants to split more than $1 million the chamber receives each year by law as the town's designated marketing organization. It says the money would help pay for a competing chamber and visitors bureau to be called the Hilton Head Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Last month, the group asked 100 island businesses to contribute $5,000 each for seed money. It needed the money to apply for a $250,000 grant from the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism, which is available to organizations to market tourist destinations.
But the group raised no money, Buonaiuto said Thursday. He said people were willing to donate, but the group did not have enough time to get a campaign ready for the state tourism department by the Aug. 4 deadline.
"We knew we had a late start. We knew it was mission impossible," he said. "Instead, we have decided to make our best first impression for the town."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.