Members of a Hilton Head Island Republican group raised concerns Monday that a proposed casino in Jasper County would tarnish the area's image as a wholesome, family-friendly resort and retirement destination.
"We want to create jobs, but don't want to sell ourselves out for sewer economics," said Bluffton resident Cynthia Bensch, who worried the casino would bring addiction, crime, bankruptcies and financial hardship.
Bensch spoke during the First Monday Republican Lunch Group's meeting at Aunt Chiladas Easy Street Cafe. She said she plans to run for Beaufort County Council Chairman Weston Newton's seat. Newton announced in January he plans to seek election to the S.C. House of Representatives.
"We want jobs that improve, not destroy, lives," Bensch said. She cited a proposed Jasper County port and planned 280-acre shopping center and luxury outlet mall, which was derailed by an unsuccessful bid for state tax incentives, as examples of good job-providers.
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Developers hope to build a casino and resort within the Hilton Head Lakes development on U.S. 278 in Hardeeville that would include a 400-room luxury hotel, a conference and event center, and dining and shopping. Ralph Teal, managing partner of Hilton Head Lakes, has said the development would bring year-round entertainment to the Lowcountry, attracting new tourism dollars and creating 2,250 on-site jobs, with a total compensation of $92 million a year.
Proponents say the complex would be of vital economic importance to the region and deny that it would increase crime or spawn unsavory satellite businesses.
Before the complex can be built, developers must get approval from Gov. Nikki Haley. If she endorses it, it would be considered by the federal Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs, a process developers expect to take six to 18 months. The casino would be owned by the Cherokee Indians.
Jocelyn Staigar, secretary of the Beaufort County Republican Party, wondered whether the casino would create competition for jobs and lure hotel and hospitality workers away from Hilton Head. Staigar also questioned whether U.S. 278 could handle casino traffic.
Mayor Drew Laughlin said he's concerned that use of the island's name, whether attached to the casino or the development it's within, will change Hilton Head's "brand image" by introducing gambling.
"Our image is of a nice place to visit and retire, not gamble," Laughlin said in an interview last week. "This is something new that will be advertised with our name attached to it and will become part of our branding, and I'm afraid that won't be a good thing."
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead