Beaufort County Council narrowly supported on first reading a plan to give the Heritage golf tournament another $1 million, atop the same amount it gave the tournament this year. Details have yet to be drawn up and council will vote on the proposal twice more.
The county's allocation is part of a proposal to save the Heritage PGA Tour event using a $30 million mix of state, local and private money.
After an hour of debate, the proposal passed 6-5, with Councilmen Steve Baer, Gerald Dawson, Brian Flewelling, Herbert Glaze and Bill McBride voting against it.
Supporters called the money a "backup plan," which would only be used if a title sponsor for the tournament can't be found. They argued that the county's investment pales compared to what the Heritage brings to local and state economies. A Clemson University study said the Heritage has an overall economic impact of more than $80 million a year.
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Opponents called the ordinance a "blank check" and said the county's $1 million pledge to support this year's tournament also was sold as a last-ditch backup plan.
If the county comes through with another $1 million, it's not clear that the other pieces of the plan will fall into place. Gov. Nikki Haley opposes underwriting the tournament with taxpayer dollars but directed two department heads to help the tournament find a private sponsor.
The council debated the contribution without specific language.
"I want us to be on the record as being supportive of this tournament -- even if it's a little vague," said Councilman Paul Sommerville.
Councilman Stu Rodman said the tournament ties in with the county's primary economy -- tourism. Tourists who attend the tournament might become residents and drive the construction and residential markets.
Baer said he doesn't understand why -- if the Heritage is so great for business -- restaurants and hotels "are not beating down our doors to help support it."
He also disputed the Clemson study's conclusions. Baer said he analyzed two years' worth of visitor data for the months of March, April and May.
"There is no increase in visitors in those three months; it's almost completely flat," Baer said. "We shouldn't be rushing into decisions using taxpayer money based on numbers which seem to fail a simple sanity test."
Some councilmen suggested the loss of the Heritage could hurt the local economy.
"If those real estate values drop to the extent that some people are warning us they might if and when the tournament is lost, we're all going to have to make up the difference," said Councilman Rick Caporale.
Councilman Weston Newton said the extra $1 million over an additional four years amounts to only $250,000 per year.
"We spend more than that promoting, collectively, a handful of music festivals," he said.
Flewelling said the county collects hospitality tax money -- from which the $1 million would be drawn -- only in unincorporated areas. He questioned whether those residents would benefit from the Heritage.
"I don't believe that there is much of an impact of the Heritage to the unicorporated areas of Beaufort County," he said.
Councilwoman Laura Von Harten said the tournament is too important to lose, but she suggested exploring ways to "merge our Gullah-Geechee Corridor status with the Heritage," and "get away from all the Scottish."
In other action, the Council approved on second reading an amendment to the Tanger 1 development agreement so county staff can decide whether a planned Olive Garden can use its signature architecture.
The 8-3 decision mirrored the first reading vote, but council debated the issue again for nearly an hour.
Newton said the move would be an end-run around the Southern Corridor Review Board, which voted not to allow a proposed stone and tile facade.
"By law, once we give the corridor review board the authority to make those taste determinations, they get to make them," Newton said.
Sommerville said council agreed to architectural branding and is simply amending the document to allow for what it intended all along.
"I strongly feel this is not an abandonment of the process," Sommerville said. "Had I known then what I know now, the language in this would have been a little different."