In 2007, the Town of Hilton Head Island offered boating and rowing enthusiasts this proposition: Come up with $500,000 in private donations, and the town would kick in $1 million more for a sailing and rowing facility.
Members of the Carolina Sailing Center, the Palmetto Rowing Club and the South Carolina Yacht Club -- three groups pushing for the proposed center on Skull Creek -- vowed to meet that challenge.
Over time, however, the fundraising goal has dropped.
By 2010, the boating groups were promising only $356,600.
And now, Town Council is poised to spend $950,000, with no significant financial contribution from the private sector, for a community park that would offer boaters access to the creek.
The nonprofit group organized to serve as the private half of the public-private partnership -- the Hilton Head Island Community Rowing and Sailing Center -- has just $18,000 set aside for the center's facilities and operations, according to Kirk Glenn, the group's treasurer, and John Rumsey, its chairman.
Leaders of the nonprofit group acknowledge they've struggled to raise money.
The sailing and rowing community is stocked with seasoned boaters, but "we just don't know that much about fundraising," Glenn said.
Rumsey blamed the town for the fundraising problems.
"We haven't pressed too much for donations because the town has been dragging this on for so long," he said. He believes fundraising would be easier if a basic center could be built, showing something tangible to potential donors who might then pitch in to make improvements.
Despite that disagreement, the project appears likely to proceed.
The town has spent $102,000 on design and environmental studies, $82,000 to remove abandoned boats and a dilapidated dock from the site off Squire Pope Road, and $5.8 million to buy the 7.75 acres the center will be built on. The town purchased the land in separate parcels between 2005 and 2011.
Town staff awaits permit approval from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before asking for construction bids, according to town public projects director Scott Liggett. He said town staff applied for the permits in winter and expects approval soon.
Most council members said during a planning workshop last week they were willing to spend $950,000 for the project as designed.
Mayor Drew Laughlin said that after years of devoting resources to the project, the town "ought to just do it" rather than prolong discussions.
"Once something has been thoroughly discussed, I like for it to be moved on," he said.
Some boaters, though, say the park's design is extravagant and doesn't fit their needs.
For instance, a ramp leading to a floating section of the dock would be too steep at low tide for boaters to safely carry their vessels to the water, according to Rumsey.
Palmetto Rowing Club member and Hilton Head Island Crew coach Lou Strayer said during a Town Council budget workshop May 22 that permanent restrooms were an unnecessary cost. Portable toilets would suffice, he said.
Other features of the center include a 1,400-square-foot picnic pavilion, fenced boat storage, a fire pit and parking.
Strayer and Rumsey say they wanted a modest facility initially, one where boaters could store and launch their vessels. After it was built, they say, they could attract public interest and raise more money to pay for other features.
But the town would not allow some of the features the group wanted, including a tractor-trailer cargo unit to store boats, and a dock that would rest on the marsh at low tide, Strayer and Rumsey said.
The problem, according to Liggett, was that neither feature would meet town design codes or DHEC requirements.
Laughlin said he stopped thinking about the project as simply a boating center after the group's financial promises fell short. Instead, he considers it a waterfront community park for the north end of the island.
"I would love to have a financial contribution from (the boating group), but what are they going to be able to do? I don't know," Laughlin said.
The rowing groups have purchased boats and equipment worth $38,000 in the past 30 months, according to Strayer. The boats and equipment would be kept at the center but would not be available for public use.
The Carolina Sailing Club purchased two 15-foot dinghies last year for $10,000. Rumsey said those boats could be stored at the center and would be available for rent to experienced sailors, even if they don't belong to the club. The rowing and sailing nonprofit group might take over the boats' insurance policies, but Rumsey said that hasn't been decided yet. He also said the group plans to provide building materials, donated by Espy Lumber Co.
Plans call for the Hilton Head Island Recreation Association to manage programming at the center, with help from rowing and sailing clubs and coaches.
The town would pay $67,000 a year toward the center's operational costs. The boating group would not contribute for such expenses, according to Rumsey.
CLASHING OVER COSTS
While some in the boating community chafe at the park's scope, some on Town Council are no happier about its cost, which has increased by $250,000 since the project was approved in 2012.
Councilwoman Kim Likins said during a town budget workshop last month that she is tired of being asked to pay more and more for what had been proposed as a private-public partnership.
"I am still in favor of the sailing and rowing center, but I am not in favor of spending $950,000," Likins said.
Town manager Riley said it's not the first time private groups have fallen short in their financial promises to the town.
"We've had groups come to us before and ask to do something (in partnership and) they would only (fulfill) part of it, but nothing to this magnitude," said Riley.
Rumsey said the town is to blame for the growing cost of the center.
"They took (the project) over, which meant that we didn't have to raise as much money because they were doing it," he said.
But Riley said the town only took over after boaters were unable to raise any money.
Finger-pointing aside, Riley said the town is ready to move forward on the project.
"At this point, I don't know why I (care) about the history. We are where we are right now," Riley said. "I think no matter how it shakes out, it will be a nice community facility."
Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian