Hilton Head Island's Town Council should be very careful about the weight it gives an unscientific survey about the arts community and the role the town should play in supporting it financially.
A web-based survey is part of the information to be gathered by consultants the town hired to suggest ways to get the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina and other arts groups on firm financial footing, determine how much public money the town should provide to arts organizations and suggest what should be done about maintenance and repairs the arts center needs.
But a self-selected survey is not an accurate gauge of public opinion, no matter how much town officials and the consultants encourage people to participate. A randomly selected survey should be conducted if it is to be anything more than a finger-in-the-wind test of what people think about the arts and the town's role -- or worse a biased, self-serving view.
It also shouldn't be conducted until the consultant's report is in. The community's response to supporting arts organizations, particularly the arts center, could depend on the amount of money needed and how it would be used.
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Center officials have asked the town to buy its building -- valued at about $6.5 million after depreciation -- and take on $400,000 in annual upkeep and about $2.5 million of needed improvements. The center says it raised about $5 million in a recent fundraising campaign to pay down $2.5 million in debt and make improvements, but more than $2 million is in pledges and bequests that might not be realized for years. Center officials also asked the town to loan it $1 million to make immediate repairs, but Town Council didn't want to do that until it had more information.
Council members were right to hesitate and should be very skeptical about the center's ability to repay a loan.
The town already has pumped a lot of money into the arts center through its accommodations tax spending and still the center operates in the red. For fiscal year 2012, total operating revenue was $3.3 million, while expenses were $3.5 million, leaving the center with a $230,316 operating loss. Add interest expense of $119,521, and the loss goes to $349,837.
Contributions and grants accounted for 40 percent of the center's operating revenue. The $346,793 from the town accounted for 6 percent of total revenue.
Even with more town help, the arts center's financial picture is not likely to change without an overhaul in the way it operates. So far, we've seen no sign that is coming.
And the arts center is but one of many organizations that look to the town for help. The town's request for proposals on the consulting work listed 32 nonprofit organizations that could be part of the project; 13 different types of facilities to consider; and 28 potential sources of public and private financial support.
The consultant's report should find ways for local arts groups to collaborate, share resources and get more efficient.
Council members have said the community survey will be key in their decision making. They should be sure it accurately reflects what the community wants, and to the extent possible, that it is based on informed opinions.