A divided Hilton Head Island Town Council narrowly approved a contract with its chamber of commerce at a marathon meeting Tuesday night.
The new, five-year contract between the town and the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce includes new parameters to give town leaders closer oversight of the more than $1.5 million in tax funding the chamber receives each year as the town's designated marketing organization.
The approval comes at the dismay of Mayor David Bennett, Councilman Lee Edwards and Councilman Marc Grant, however, who asked the council to revisit the contract's details after dozens of suggestions from residents and local business leaders during two hours of public comments.
"This is certainly still a step forward," Bennett said after the meeting. "Does it go far enough? Probably not, but I'm not here to put my personal desires above that of the majority of council.
"We spoke our minds. We said what we believed," he continued. "Now we must move forward."
Ultimately, support for the highly respected members of the chamber's board of directors -- nearly 20 of whom spoke in support of the contract Tuesday -- pushed Councilman John McCann to support the document as written. He went on to cast the swing vote on the agreement.
"The most important thing to me up until 10 p.m. last night, when I finally closed shop on this, was the quality of the people at the chamber," McCann said. "These are established business people that have the credentials that they're putting on the line for this. These people have credentials that would not let anything go wrong in their shop. For that reason, I will vote in favor of this contract."
The comments echoed those of nearly all the council members, especially Bill Harkins, Tom Lennox and Kim Likins, who enthusiastically supported the document as presented.
"I see people who are community leaders with impeccable credentials -- that are true representatives for what's best for the island," Harkins said ahead of the vote. "I can sleep quite well knowing they are overseeing this contract."
There are still concerns about the contract for Bennett, Edwards and Grant after hearing the public's comments Tuesday.
More than a dozen local residents and leaders raised concerns about the contract's length, performance measurements and details.
Chamber opponent Skip Hoagland and Beaufort County Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch admonished the contract's lack of a specific clause about the chamber's responsibility under the state's public records laws.
Business leaders David Ames and Carlton Dallas both suggested a competitive bidding process should be used to award the chamber its formal designation as the town's marketer. Bennett agreed.
"As a consumer, I price shop, I learn what people are trying to charge me," Bennett said. "I don't view this as any different, and I can't find myself to support a contract that doesn't spell out a fee that is being paid for the service."
Bennett and Grant also worried the contract does not address specifically a marketing vision for the island. Bennett suggested hiring a marketing expert to help the town craft specific guidelines for marketing that the chamber could incorporate into its annual plan.
Ultimately, though, support for the chamber was too strong to delay the contract for further discussions.
"Moving forward it will be my highest priority to make sure the town adequately puts in place the proper marketing plan and we'll go from there," Bennett said.
Tuesday's vote ends months of scrutiny over the town's negotiations with the chamber.
"It's not so much a relief to have this done but a vote of confidence that the town knows we're headed in the right direction," said chamber board chairman Jay Wiendl, general manager of the Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island. "Now we can get back to business."
Wiendl, other board members and chamber president Bill Miles exchanged lots of hugs and handshakes after the vote.
"We're exciting about moving forward and putting these conversations behind us," Miles said. "The scrutiny, the discussions about metrics, it's good to have that formalized. Now let's get on with things."
That scrutiny was brought on largely by Hoagland, the chamber's most outspoken critic. He has led an aggressive, often vitriolic, behind-the-scenes campaign against the chamber and is locked in a lawsuit with the chamber over whether it is subject to public records laws.
"The fight continues," Hoagland said. "Quite frankly, I'm proud, even though we lost. The scrutiny we've brought is a good thing. I feel good about what I've done."
The proposed, five-year pact between the town and the chamber of commerce includes requirements that:
- The chamber maintain its current accreditation levels with the Destination Marketing Association International and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
- The chamber meet a dozen industry metrics that must be tracked and reviewed on a regular basis. If not met, the contract would establish a process for correcting underperformance and provide for regular inspection of certain financial records.
- The Town Council and chamber receive an annual third-party legal opinion that the chamber is in compliance with state accommodations tax and nonprofit regulations.
- The town leaders participate in the process of selecting future chamber auditing firms.
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- Chamber of commerce contract would give Hilton Head Island new oversight of public dollars, Nov. 6, 2015
- Release of contract with Hilton Head chamber delayed; negotiations continue in secret, Oct. 18, 2015
- As chamber of commerce contract nears completion, Skip Hoagland brings supporters to Town Council, Oct. 6, 2015
- Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett calls out chamber of commerce, critics over contract controversy, Sept. 29, 2015