The nonprofit Arts Center of Coastal Carolina will get up to $575,000 from the town of Hilton Head for a new lighting system — against the wishes of the mayor, two other Town Council members and a number of residents who voiced their concerns at a council meeting this week.
At Tuesday’s meeting, council members John McCann, Bill Harkins, Marc Grant and Tom Lennox approved the recommendation, which will allow the town to enter into a lease agreement with the arts center for the “design, acquisition and installation” of the lighting system.
Mayor David Bennett and council members Kim Likins and David Ames expressed concerns about approving the taxpayer funding, which will likely come from $1 million in unused hospitality funds. Hospitality taxes are generated from the hospitality industry, such as restaurants, according to town director of finance John Troyer.
Likins, the mayor pro tem, had heated comments earlier in Tuesday’s meeting when giving a report on the lighting-system recommendation from the Community Services Committee, of which she is a member. Last week, she and Harkins, a fellow committee member, took verbal shots at each other while debating the issue.
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“This (committee) meeting was a sham, and it was a shame,” Likins said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It gave new meaning to the words ‘no transparency.’ It was government at its worst. And based on the amount of emails and phone calls I’ve received regarding what happened, I believe that our citizens understand that.”
Likins called for an audit of the arts center’s building needs, noting that consultants previously have said the center needs new mechanical systems.
“I think we’re fooling citizens to say this is a one-time expense,” Ames said during the meeting. “How does the $575,000 to the arts center measure up to other established town priorities? Or other arts organizations? My inescapable conclusion is this is another good example — or you could say another bad example — of preferential treatment.”
More than a dozen residents at Tuesday’s meeting spoke for and against replacing the lighting system. Proponents cited the the economic impact of the center and what they described as an urgent need to replace the lighting.
“My concern with not providing this funding right now is the black eye that Hilton Head Island is going to suffer when the arts center has to close because the lighting system fails,” Chet Williams told council members. “The arts center is an asset for the community. It’s a nonprofit organization, and it deserves, and Hilton Head Island’s reputation deserves, support from the town for the arts center.”
The center on Shelter Cove Lane generates more than $25 million in annual economic impact for the region and has received $4.2 million in accommodation tax funds over the last 10 years, according to information provided by Harkins. Replacing the lighting system was deemed “critical” by two independent consultants, he said.
As part of the agreement approved Tuesday, the center will be required to, among other things, cover 15 percent of the total cost of the lighting system, provide a timeline for the project, and provide the town with any requested financial information.