Beaufort News

Chamber welcome center scaled back, delayed

The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce has shaved about $1 million from its plans for a new welcome center, citing "dramatic changes" in the commercial lending market and difficulty raising money in a flagging economy.

The Hilton Head Town Council also plans to give the chamber more time for the project before it has to vacate the current welcome center at 100 William Hilton Parkway. On Tuesday, it unanimously approved on first reading a one-year extension of the island's $1-a-year lease with the chamber and Coastal Discovery Museum.

The chamber asked the town for the extension Aug. 16, saying it needed more time to raise money because of the poor economic conditions during the past few years.

"We are about 60 percent of the way complete financially with our plans," chamber president and CEO Bill Miles said. "The current time is not conducive to raise money in the private sector."

The chamber's original conceptual plans, presented in January to the town's Design Review Board, called for a $3 million to $4 million, 6,700-square-foot building to replace the 9,000-square-foot building built as a restaurant in the 1970s. Chamber officials have said the building is moldy, uninviting and ill-suited to accommodate new technology.

The project now has been pared to $2.5 million to $3 million and 5,140 square feet. The construction of a second phase -- which includes a 100-foot-long dock, upgraded technology, a commercial kitchen and an "icon" -- will now depend on visitor demand, necessity and funding, according to the chamber.

The chamber received about $1 million in 2008 when the town purchased the 3.3-acre site from it and the Coastal Discovery Museum for $2.3 million. Town officials at the time said the purchase freed the museum from the old, aging welcome center and allowed it to devote money to its site at Honey Horn. It also gave the town control of a parcel in a high-traffic area with scenic marsh views.

The three-year lease with the town was to expire Oct. 2 and stipulates the museum be completely moved out of the welcome center. It also says the chamber must have all the necessary town approvals in place for a new welcome center. Otherwise, the chamber can lease the building for two more years at $2,000 a month.

Under the new agreement, the chamber has until Oct. 2, 2012, to get town approval for its redevelopment plan before the higher lease rate would begin.

The new proposal comes as more people are turning to mobile devices and the Internet for travel planning, and welcome centers around the state have seen a drop in traffic, according to tourism officials. But the chamber says the new center will be a modern, tech-savvy complex that will draw more traffic and enhance tourists' visits.

"Funding limitations aside, our vision for the site remains the same as it did when we began the process: to develop a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly welcome center that appropriately represents Hilton Head Island and the entire Hilton Head region," wrote Miles and David Tigges, chamber board chairman, in a letter to town manager Steve Riley. "The facility will become a 'one-stop' resource for all the area's offerings & events for visitors."

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