Although the state budget is nearly completed, members of the Beaufort County Legislative Delegation say they're still fighting for about $1 million in one-time funding for the Waddell Mariculture Center.
Money for much-needed upgrades to the Bluffton facility was included in the $6.3 billion budget passed by the S.C. House, but it was excluded from the Senate's version. The two sides will meet this week to hash out the budget differences.
There's still a chance the money will be included in the final spending plan, according to state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.
"When you have a strong push from both sides (House and Senate), the odds of having it included improve," said Davis. He added that state Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, is working in the House to support the Waddell appropriation.
It helps that there is general support for the center across much of the legislature, Davis said, and the measure does not divide lawmakers along ideological or partisan lines.
"It's simply a question of how best to allocate scarce resources, and we have a strong case," he said.
The Waddell Mariculture Center, which is operated by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, sits on 1,200 acres on Victoria Bluff, with frontage on the Colleton River and miles of hiking trails.
The center has released millions of cobia, spotted sea trout, red drum and striped bass into waters in Beaufort and Charleston counties, and also is a world-renowned research center, according to Al Stokes, its manager.
In recent years, the center has developed a novel method that allows shrimp farming almost anywhere, from the plains of Iowa to the shores of Maine. Stokes and his staff of four full-time workers and a handful of interns also study local fish stocks to ensure the fisheries' health.
And he leads tours for thousands of people each year, including school groups and local clubs.
But after 31 years without a major upgrade, the center is showing its age.
The roof and skylights leak, and water has damaged interior walls. Salt water has corroded a ceiling section in the hatchery, and a computer room is located in an old closet. The electrical system and heating and cooling units need to be replaced, he said.
The six-member conference committee composed of three House and three Senate members will convene sometime this week. The group will go through the two budgets line by line and determine which chamber's allocation should be used for the final budget plan. The final compromise budget is expected by mid-June.
Herbkersman is confident the Waddell money will make the final cut. He says the measure has strong support across the state, not just among coastal legislators.
"It might get a little bit bloody," Herbkersman said of the legislative fight. But he added: "It's a performing asset for the state, and by God, we are going to keep that asset going."
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.