Rain dampens Hilton Head Wingfest -- and rec center's budget

People walk around with umbrellas to shelter themselves from the rain during the 18th annual Wingfest on Saturday afternoon at Shelter Cove Park on Hilton Head Island.
People walk around with umbrellas to shelter themselves from the rain during the 18th annual Wingfest on Saturday afternoon at Shelter Cove Park on Hilton Head Island. Delayna Earley

Chicken wings can be served many ways, but soggy is one of the least palatable, as demonstrated by attendance at last weekend's 18th annual Hilton Head Island Wingfest.

For the second consecutive year, Wingfest was washed out, according to Frank Soule, executive director of the Hilton Head Island Recreation Association, which runs the festival. That's putting a financial strain on the nonprofit organization, which relies on the event as a fundraiser.

Hampered by cool temperatures and showers early in the day, Wingfest drew about 1,000 people -- one-fourth the number who came in 2010 and 2011, according to Soule. About 2,500 people came to last year's event.

Wingfest has been one of the association's biggest revenue sources in past years, Soule said. In both 2010 and 2011, the event netted about $45,000.

But the festival is also one of the association's most expensive fundraisers, costing between $33,000 and $45,000 in each of the past three years. One of the biggest costs, Soule said, is the more than 6,000 pounds of raw chicken wings the association provides to vendors. The association makes its money off admission fees and food and beverage sales.

Expenses and revenue from this year's event are still being calculated, but Soule says, "We probably won't even break even on it. Right now, we're evaluating what the impact (on the association) will be going forward."

Island Recreation is seeking more money from Beaufort County in next year's budget.

The association organizes several other events to fund its operations and scholarship program. They include the Hilton Head Snow Day, Hilton Head Oyster Festival and Hilton Head Island Seafood Fest.

The association still has opportunities to make up some of its losses this year. It will host the Seafood Fest at Shelter Cove Community Park April 5-6, and sell concessions April 15-21 at the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing.

"It was colder and just more miserable this year in terms of weather," said John Salazar, professor of hospitality management at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and director of the Lowcountry and Resort Islands Tourism Institute.

Salazar and a group of students had asked festival-goers to complete surveys for tourism research, as they do at many public events in area.

"We had a total of 75 completed surveys, which to tell you the truth is the lowest we've ever had at an event," Salazar said. Usually, he said, they collect several hundred.

The surveys are used to determine, among other things, the number of people who travel more than 50 miles to attend events.

Salazar said more than half of the crowd came from outside that 50-mile range this year, according to a preliminary tally.

Though the sample size was small this year, last fall's oyster fest, which produced 412 surveys over two days, showed similar data.

That Wingfest attendance could add some weight and immediacy to the association's request to Beaufort County for more money to cover its pool expenses.

In a presentation two weeks ago to Hilton Head Town Council, Soule said last year's rained-out Wingfest raised only raised $6,000, leaving the association about $17,000 in the hole at the end of the fiscal year.

The center is asking the county for a $72,000 increase next year for pool operations, to $132,000. That could allow the association to lower program fees, expand its need-based scholarship program and put less pressure on weather-dependent fundraisers like Wingfest, Soule said. The county has given $60,000 a year for pool operations since 2004, he said.

County Councilman Steve Baer said he thinks the association has a "fair" chance of receiving the additional county funding.

"I think there's merit in their case," Baer said.

"They get far less than all the other pools that service other parts of the county, so it would be fair that they get additional -- actually, it would be really fair if they got as much as the other county pools, which don't serve as many people."

County Council will consider the recreation center's request and those of other groups during budget discussions over the next few months. Council is expected to approve a final budget in May or June.

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  3. At Wingfest, judges have strong opinions, stomachs, March 16, 2011