Beaufort County leaders turned up the heat Monday on a long-simmering plan to build a new culinary school at Bluffton’s Buckwalter Place.
The Technical College of the Lowcountry has spent several years developing proposals and seeking funds for the estimated $11.5 million facility.
Members of the County Council’s Finance Committee recommended Monday that the county kick in a major portion of that total — roughly $5 million — to be paid out of tax revenues collected as part of the multi-county industrial park agreement in place at the Buckwalter site.
But the funding offer, which still must be approved by the full council, comes with a few strings attached: TCL must work with municipalities such as the towns of Bluffton and Hilton Head Island and with restaurant and food industry partners to raise the rest of the money needed to build the campus.
“We really are looking for (other stakeholders) to step up,” Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart said. “... I think we have made it pretty clear that we are willing to participate, but we not will take the whole brunt of this (start-up cost).”
TCL president Richard Gough said there “has been a lot of discussion with Hilton Head and now with Bluffton.”
Because the proposed project is on the mainland, Hilton Head could potentially provide “some operational support,” but “I think it’s very unlikely we will see any capital support coming from them,” he said.
Bluffton could be a different story, however.
Bluffton Town Councilman Dan Wood told those gathered at Monday’s Finance Committee meeting that he “think(s) the (Bluffton Town) Council supports this endeavor.”
But the question remains “to what level” the town will be willing commit to it financially, he said.
County Councilman Brian Flewelling questioned whether county tax dollars ought to be used for the culinary school, but acknowledged that “you cannot dispute the need” for such a facility to address the labor shortage facing the local restaurant and hospitality industries.
Clayton Rollison, chef and owner of the Lucky Rooster restaurant on Hilton Head Island, told county leaders Monday that the lack of skilled restaurant staff is putting local establishments at a competitive disadvantage.
Not only would a culinary school benefit restaurateurs, it would provide much-needed education to improve the earning potential for local workers, he said.
The overall Buckwalter Place development — which is expected to be anchored by a 113,000-square-foot Kroger Marketplace — is a partnership between the Town of Bluffton and Southeastern Developers.
TCL’s proposal calls for the construction of a 26,000-square-foot culinary campus there that could accommodate up to 300 students. Estimates put the construction timeframe at around two years.
The school’s vice president for institutional advancement Mary Lee Carns said the developer has requested a decision as to whether the culinary school campus will be built be made no later than mid-September.
While TCL works toward getting its culinary institute off the ground, University of South Carolina Beaufort is building a new campus on Hilton Head Island that will offer courses in hospitality management.
That campus is set to open next fall and is expected to offer the hospitality management program to about 200 students.