Beaufort News

Splitting Beaufort chamber, visitor bureau could make both stronger, officials say

The Visitor and Convention Bureau of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce will explore spinning off on its own -- a move officials say could strengthen both organizations by allowing one to target tourism and the other to focus on business growth.

"This isn't a divorce," said Carlotta Ungaro, chamber president and CEO. "This is more like the kids growing up. ... We're just feeling that maybe it's time they can stand on their own."

The chamber and VCB boards will consider a split during planning sessions this month and next, said Ungaro and Bob Moquin, VCB executive director.

Officials with both organizations vowed their boards would remain supportive of each other if they part ways.

"The VCB has matured to a level where it's fully ready and able to concentrate solely on tourism and bring a new focus that hasn't been there in the past," VCB board chairman Randall Burch said. "Both boards look forward to working closely together in spinning off the VCB, and after that occurs, leaving two stronger and more focused entities."

The chamber has long worked to attract tourists, but that emphasis became more formal when it formed the VCB in March 2009, Moquin said.

Tourism ranks as the Beaufort region's top non-governmental industry, he said.

It also plays a large role in the chamber's budget -- more than 60 percent of the $991,000 in revenues in fiscal year 2010 were tourism-related, Ungaro said.

The chamber's share of local and state accommodations taxes, charged on overnight lodging, and hospitality taxes on the sale of food and beverages made up 46 percent of the revenues. Another 15 percent of the chamber's budget comes from tourism-related, private-sector investment, and the remaining 39 percent comes from chamber activities, Ungaro said.

As the designated marketing organization for northern Beaufort County, Beaufort and Port Royal, the chamber automatically gets a slice of accommodations and hospitality taxes distributed by the local governments and can apply for additional money each year. But the dollars are restricted and must be used for tourism-related marketing and activities, Ungaro said.

If the two entities split, the VCB likely would try to become the designated marketing organization in northern Beaufort County, Ungaro said.

Tourism-related businesses make up about 15 percent to 18 percent of the chamber's membership, Moquin said. "A lot of those members don't necessarily get involved with other chamber activities."

The idea for a split stemmed from conversations with chamber board chairman Jimmy Boozer, Ungaro said.

Boozer couldn't be reached for comment Friday, but said in a news release last week the groups "have grown to a point that their individual missions may be better served as two organizations."

The visitor center staff of the VCB moved into The Arsenal in April, and the remainder of the chamber VCB staff is scheduled to move into the Carnegie library building soon. If two organizations are formed, the space at both facilities "can easily accommodate the staff and two missions," the release said,.