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Long-secret Hilton Head Ironman plans come to light as race route divides leaders, sheriff + survey

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Routes for a proposed Ironman 70.3 triathlon race are dividing area leaders and Sheriff P.J. Tanner, who cannot agree on where and how to close parts of southern Beaufort County's main thoroughfares for the event.

But the brewing argument also has become the first glimpse the public has had of a plan, crafted largely in secret over the past eight months by local government and Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce leaders.

Now with pressure mounting from race organizer World Triathlon Corp., local officials and Tanner must publicly compromise on a route or lose the chance to bring the race to Hilton Head in October 2016. Supporters say the race would bring a large economic boost.

The core issue, though, is where to send athletes on the 56-mile bike portion, which must take riders off Hilton Head and back. The swim and run portions of the event would occur on the island.

Any off-island route would force closures along part of U.S. 278, and Tanner and leaders disagree about how best to minimize the congestion that would cause. There's also a concern as to how residents and emergency vehicles could enter and exit some of the area's largest gated communities during the race.

SHERIFF'S ROUTE OPPOSED

On Thursday, Tanner and county Emergency Management Commander Lt. Col. Neil Baxley unveiled their proposed race route.

Under their proposal, the 70.3-mile race would begin with a 1.2-mile swim in the ocean in front of Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort.

Athletes would then hop onto their bikes and ride along the westbound lanes of U.S. 278 over the bridges to the mainland and through greater Bluffton up to S.C. 170, where they would turn right. They would follow S.C. 170's eastbound lanes to just before the Lemon Island marina where they would turn around, Baxley explained.

At the turnaround, riders would retrace the route back to the island. After they reached Palmetto Dunes, they would take a 13.1-mile run around the north end of the island and finish at Shelter Cove Towne Centre.

Meanwhile, motor vehicle traffic would shift to both directions on eastbound lanes of U.S. 278 and westbound lanes of S.C. 170 along the route.

Aside from the congestion fewer lanes would create, the route would effectively cut off access to communities on the north and east sides of the route from about 7 a.m. to almost 5:30 p.m. on race day, Baxley and Tanner said.

That jeopardizes emergency access to those gated communities, eliminates access to route-side churches' Sunday services on race day and likely would keep residents of plantations along U.S. 278 stuck within their gates for the day, Tanner said.

"This is not a good route, but it's the only route that works," Baxley said. "Everything else had just way too many challenges for us."

But chamber leaders say the sheriff's proposed route is too restrictive and hope they can reach a plan that all sides can agree to.

"We will continue to work directly with Sheriff Tanner and his team to develop a route with the least impact on residents and a safe course for athletes," chamber president and CEO Bill Miles said in a statement Thursday. "We know that whatever the final route becomes, it will be with safety as the first priority for all involved."

Tanner and Baxley say they already have ruled out alternate routes that use the Bluffton Parkway flyover, which will be completed later this year. They say those routes would be too complicated, with too many turns and too many road closures to be safe.

Chamber and town leaders say they remain confident a compromise can be reached. However, chamber officials have declined to publicly discuss other route options.

SECRET EFFORTS REVEALED

Chamber and local government leaders have been working behind closed doors to bring an Ironman 70.3 race to the county since last fall. They have said they expect the event to attract thousands of athletes and visitors and bring as much as $50 million to local businesses.

Ironman's parent organization, World Triathlon Corp., required chamber officials to sign a nondisclosure agreement while they negotiated a contract to host the event, Tanner said. Attempts to reach Ironman officials were unsuccessful Thursday.

That agreement has cut residents out of the equation, he said.

But that changed Monday when Go Tri Sports owner Al Olivetti, who has helped the chamber during the negotiations, took to Facebook to argue that Tanner is the only local official holding up the event's approval.

Tanner said he decided then to call a news conference to explain his concerns.

"Now that the cat is out of the bag, which we've been pushing for a while, there may be enough public comment for the chamber to drop this and find another event, or we'll proceed forward anyway and host the Ironman 70.3," Tanner said at the news conference Thursday.

"If the general public, the citizens of this county, want this event to take place, it will take place. We will provide the best public safety that we can give to participants and citizens and guests, but the public has a right to be heard."

On Wednesday, Tanner met with security officials for each of the gated communities along the proposed route to discuss his concerns, he said.

It was the first time Hilton Head Plantation general manager Peter Kristian had heard of the possibility of an Ironman or how its route could effectively close access to the plantation for a day, he said Thursday.

"It's obviously raised some concerns because we don't have any of the details," said Kristian, who has invited Baxley to present to the plantation board of directors next week. "If (the effects) can be mitigated reasonably, we want to hear that, too. I always look at the needs of the residents for emergency services, ... but it may very well be that they think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Despite any new concerns, though, local leaders will have more than a year to address logistical details in public meetings across the county, said Hilton Head Town Councilman Bill Harkins.

"There's a lot more at stake than simply a race," he said. "It's a really unique opportunity to showcase who we are. ...

"For reasons unknown to me, there's a level of recalcitrance with some people who are certainly bright enough to come up with solutions. I hope reason prevails."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach and on Facebook at facebook.com/IPBGZach.

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