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Panel urges Hilton Head to solve performing arts venue issue

With a little bit of direction and a push in marketing, Hilton Head Island can turn its already thriving arts and cultural community into an economic strength.

But without solving the looming issue -- a venue to accommodate the island's top acts -- many of the island's arts organizations will continue to face challenges, according to the chairwoman of the committee set up to give recommendations on the future of the island's arts and cultural scene.

A suitable venue was the most frequent of the concerns the Arts and Strategic Planning Committee heard over its five months of surveying Hilton Head Island's arts community, chairwoman Jane Joseph told Hilton Head's town council at a workshop in Beaufort on Thursday.

The most common concerns were about size or availability of a venue, she said.

Although the committee was not tasked with giving a recommendation on the long-running venue issue, Joseph urged town officials to come to an agreement quickly. Council members briefly discussed how to do that -- setting up a new committee to look at possible venue solutions or bringing in a consultant on the matter -- but will likely discuss the committee's recommendations further during Friday and Saturday's workshop sessions.

Critics contend that the existing Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, at 350 seats, is too small to support the island's arts community and is beset by financial problems, largely subsidized by the town government.

But a huge 6,500-seat amphitheater -- with 1,500 indoor seats and outdoor space for 5,000 more patrons -- proposed by a group of Hilton Head Island businessmen last year may be too farfetched at this point to become reality.

"It wasn't on our plate, but it came up so many times that we just had to say to you, we know its a big issue, we know its a tough issue, but it needs to be dealt with soon," Joseph said.

Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett called the venue issue a "huge restrictor" for the island's arts community, but said he was unsure of what direction the council would take moving forward. He believes a future venue should be able to accommodate the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and the Hilton Head Choral Society, requiring a building with seating "north of 900."

Arts Center of Coastal Carolina CEO Kathleen Bateson said she was optimistic that the town would move quickly on the venue issue. Bateson said she attended many of the arts committee meetings over the summer and saw how many people showed up to talk about the issue.

"We're all looking forward to the outcome in this," she said.

Attempts to reach Walter Graver, president of the Community Vision group supporting the amphitheater proposal, for comment on Thursday were unsuccessful.

According to an estimate done by the nonprofit Americans for the Arts for the committee, Hilton Head's arts community already supports $13 million in income and 605 full-time jobs. The estimate was done by looking at the top six local nonprofit arts organizations and the expenditures of island restaurants on musicians, Joseph said, so the actual economic impact is likely larger.

A report detailing the committee's findings and their recommendations will be completed soon, Joseph said.

The committee also researched how other cities of varying sizes harnessed their culture to the area's economic benefit, finding that the island suffers from a perception problem.

While the arts community in neighboring Bluffton and Beaufort frequently garner media attention, Hilton Head's arts scene went largely unmentioned, Joseph said. Both of those communities have applied to become S.C. Arts Commission Cultural Districts, something the committee recommended Hilton Head do.

The committee also recommended the town's designated marketing organizations dedicate more advertising to Hilton Head's arts and culture. Joseph said the town should use the vibrant arts community to drive tourism to the area in addition to its beaches and bike paths -- which she also said could be used as a tool, by adding signage or creating a phone app to direct tourists on the bike paths to cultural hot spots.

"It can't just be the beach, and it can't just be about the bike paths," she said. "Advertising needs to more prominently feature arts and culture."

Joseph also said the town should set up an online hub, with a calendar of upcoming and annual events, echoing a call made by Cranford Hollow frontman John Cranford at an arts committee meeting in August.

Joseph said the committee also recommended setting up arts enclaves, cultural gathering points similar to Old Town Bluffton or Beaufort's Bay Street. Bennett and councilwoman Kim Likins both offered the Dunnagan's Alley area as a spot for a possible arts enclave, using it as an opportunity to revitalize a "tired area" in the town, as Bennett put it.

The committee recommended setting up an Arts and Culture Network to steer most of the initiatives, with the town helping to a recruit an arts director to shape its vision.

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

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