The Hilton Head Island St. Patrick's Day Parade will have a major sponsor for the first time in its 29-year history, event officials announced Tuesday -- Merchant Service Center will contribute about $10,000 to be a presenting sponsor.
That means those planning to imbibe at bars along the parade route need not worry about buying wristbands this year.
Joe Roces, president of the credit-card processing company based on Hilton Head, said he's proud to support the parade, which has struggled in recent years to cover the $20,000 cost for law enforcement, portable toilets, insurance, promotion and bands.
"I bring my kids down there every year," Roces said. "It's a great opportunity for us to reach out to the community and sponsor a great event for families and the community to come together."
Although his company has only committed to sponsoring this year's event, Roces said he hopes to support future parades, too.
In a 2010 agreement with parade officials, owners of bars and restaurants along the parade route agreed to require those over 21 to have a $3 wristband to enter their establishments. Some owners simply purchased the bands themselves and gave them away to patrons for free. Proceeds were used to defray expenses -- mainly overtime for sheriff's deputies who patrol the area and control traffic, parade co-chairwoman Kim Capin said.
Merchant Service Center's sponsorship means organizers will not need to charge for the wristbands this year, Capin said. Wristbands, though, will still be given out -- free of charge -- to help law enforcement identify those who are of legal age to consume alcohol.
In the past, bar owners have purchased the wristbands from the parade foundation and given them to customers at no charge.
"This is an incredibly generous gift by Merchant Service Center to the bars and the parade," Capin said. "Covering costs have gotten harder and harder with the economy. One year, we collected donations along the parade route, and businesses have chipped in, but it's tough. We're extremely grateful for their support."
Dave Thornton, manager of Wild Wing Cafe on Pope Avenue, said the parade usually means the most single-day sales of the year for his restaurant.
"It's an absolutely wonderful event, coming out of the slow season in winter, to kick off spring," Thornton said. "We don't want the parade to go anywhere. Its fantastic to see they've got a sponsor."
Parade officials Tuesday also named former Mayor Tom Peeples as this year's parade grand marshal.
Peeples, owner of Tom Peeples Builder Inc., was elected to the Hilton Head Island Town Council in 1989 and was elected mayor in 1995. He served for 15 years before deciding not to seek reelection in 2010.
"Serving as mayor for 15 years, Tom Peeples made a great, positive impact on Hilton Head," Capin said.
Peeples, who is part Irish and Scottish, said he looks forward to his new honorary role.
"I've been in the parade for years (as a town official), but never really got to watch the parade," he said. "It will be nice to actually watch this time."
About 25,000 revelers are expected to attend the parade.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead