TCL looking for $12.5M to build Buckwalter Place culinary institute

Tourists coming to Beaufort County want to eat at great restaurants.

But what if there aren’t enough well-trained employees to staff those restaurants?

That’s the situation many local establishments are finding themselves in, and the Technical College of the Lowcountry wants to build a new culinary school to help meet the staffing demand. And it wants local governments to kick in $12.5 million to pay for it.

When Beaufort County voters shot down a sales tax increase last year, a potential funding source for the new facility dried up.

But TCL officials and local restaurateurs say the need for such a school remains as critical as ever.

The college has recently reached out to the Beaufort County Council for a helping hand in raising roughly $12.5 million to build a 34,000-square-foot culinary institute in Bluffton’s Buckwalter Place.

TCL president Richard Gough said earlier this week that his hope would be for county — perhaps in partnership with the Town of Bluffton and the Beaufort County School District — to pay for the construction of the facility, which would then be leased to the college.

The institute, which would have the capacity for about 400 students, would provide locals with the opportunity to learn culinary skills they could use in both the hospitality and health care industries, he said.

Clayton Rollison, chef and owner of the Lucky Rooster restaurant on Hilton Head Island, told members of the County Council’s Finance Committee last month that “the need for trained culinary staff is at a tipping point for businesses to stay viable.”

A highly educated workforce is “vital to our business,” he said.

The potential for that workforce is here, “they just need to be developed,” Rollison said.

SERG Restaurant Group chef Nick Unangst said his organization has dozens of positions in need of qualified applicants.

Other nearby areas that rely heavily on tourism — such as Charleston and Horry County — already have culinary institutes.

Unangst told county leaders last month that a culinary institute would help local restaurants “stay competitive and keep our edge.”

County Council members have echoed calls for more culinary education opportunities.

The restaurant industry is one where “you can start out at a low level and eventually become a business owner,” Councilman Stu Rodman said.

Adding trained restaurant staff to the local workforce “is something we have to figure out how to do,” he said.

But — as is so often the case — funding the construction of the institute could be a sticking point.

“We can’t do this alone as a college,” said Mary Lee Carns, executive director of the TCL Foundation. “We will need some help in the early years.”

As yet, the county has not pledged any money for the project.

However, “the desire is here to see this happen,” Councilman Jerry Stewart said earlier this week. “We will keep looking for ways to do it.”

Gough said the school needs to have funding in place by mid-summer so construction of the culinary institute can coincide with other development in Buckwalter Place, such as the construction of a Kroger Marketplace grocery store and the new headquarters for the Don Ryan Center for Innovation.