Hilton Head accommodations tax panel winnows requests

The Heritage Classic Foundation, the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and Coastal Discovery Museum would get the largest share of Hilton Head Island's bed-tax grants if Town Council follows an advisory committee's recommendations Wednesday.

None of the three would get as much as they requested from the Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee, but they fared better than other applicants.

The recommendations go to Town Council in February for final consideration.

Faced with falling revenues and high demand, committee members said they favored events and organizations that draw the most overnight visitors.

"It's critical we continue to grow visitors on this island," said committee member Bret Martin, vice president of Greenwood Communities & Resorts. "We need to attract the affluent traveler to the island ... those empty-nesters that have the money and ability to travel and spend money and play golf here."

Awarding money to the island's annual PGA Tour event, the chamber and the museum to promote Hilton Head as a golf, culinary, historical and cultural destination will do just that, he said.

The three groups would account for more than half of about $812,500 the town expects to have available for new grants by the end of 2010.

In total, Hilton Head expects to collect $2.2 million generated by the 2 percent state "bed tax" on lodging during the 2011 grant cycle, according to town finance director Susan Simmons. About $1.4 million of that has already been earmarked.

The committee voted to recommend that Town Council award:

  • $160,000 to the Heritage Classic Foundation to market its golf tournament. It had asked for $370,000.
  • $135,000 to the chamber to market the island to prospective tourists. It had asked for $425,000.
  • $145,000 to the Coastal Discovery Museum for cultural and eco-tourism programs and to help pay for the Lowcountry Civil War Sesquicentennial Celebration scheduled for December 2011. It had asked for $175,000.
  • Most of the 25 organizations applying for bed-tax revenue had their requests cut, with seven slated to receive nothing. Only one organization, The Sandbox Children's Museum, saw an increase -- of $2,500.

    The town received 31 applications seeking a total of $2.3 million. Last year, about 20 applicants requested a total of $1.3 million.

    Among the groups left out was the Heritage Library Foundation. The private reference library and research center asked for $14,500 to refurbish Fort Mitchell for the upcoming Civil War sesquicentennial and $30,000 to support operations.

    Though sympathetic to the town's revenue constraints, some said they're worried about too much focus on groups that get "heads in beds" and not enough on arts and cultural groups that distinguish the island from other tourist destinations.

    "We need to attract tourists here for reasons other than beaches and golf," said Robert Smith, president of the library foundation. "They need to make history a bigger part of the sales pitch. Look at the possibility of losing the (Heritage) golf tournament. They need to be looking for new things."

    Committee chairman Willis Shay said the committee balanced return on investment and support for arts organizations.