Politics & Government

Why did Bluffton just agree to pay $500,000 for a culinary school?

This artists rendering, as seen on the Technical College of the Lowcountry website, shows the exterior of TCL’s proposed culinary institute.
This artists rendering, as seen on the Technical College of the Lowcountry website, shows the exterior of TCL’s proposed culinary institute.

The Technical College of the Lowcountry’s recipe to build a new culinary school got a new ingredient Tuesday when Bluffton leaders agreed to help pay for the facility.

The Bluffton Town Council voted unanimously to contribute $500,000 to be paid out over the next 10 years.

The college’s proposed $11.5 million, 26,000-square-foot facility at Buckwalter Place is their way of addressing the county’s shortage of trained restaurant workers, an issue TCL officials say has resulted in shortened hours for some restaurants, gaps in customer service and threats to the county’s reliance on tourism revenue.

Town leaders said Tuesday that they support the goal of the project, but some questioned what level of participation the town should have in funding it.

Councilman Fred Hamilton said “the school would be a great asset to our region” but added that he has “concerns about how much the town should contribute.”

Councilman Dan Wood said the decision to chip in town funds was a difficult and complicated one.

These sentiments were echoed by Councilman Harry Lutz, who said he would have liked more time to consider the issue before making a commitment.

TCL’s president Richard Gough appeared to assuage some of these concerns. He vowed that, if Bluffton agreed to a funding commitment, college officials would “find the rest of the money we need in some way, shape or form.”

Any money provided by public entities would be viewed as an investment in Beaufort County’s future rather than merely a donation to the school, he said.

The culinary institute could accommodate up to 300 full-time students. Estimates put the construction time frame at around two years.

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.

Gough said the developer would like to have concrete plans for the culinary school in hand within the next month or two.

The town is the latest in a series of local governing bodies to commit to funding a part of the project.

Members of the Beaufort County Council’s Finance Committee recommended earlier this month that the county kick in its share of tax revenues collected as part of the multicounty industrial park agreement in place at the Buckwalter site. County leaders estimate that total to be roughly $5 million.

The full council likely will begin discussions on the issue as early as next week, and the funding is expected to be contingent on other parties shouldering part of the cost.

The Beaufort County Board of Education agreed earlier this week to chip in $2.5 million over a 20-year period for the project.

The board’s financial promise also comes with a caveat: the college must provide $125,000 of culinary classes in the form of dual credits to Beaufort County School District students each year. If services drop below that threshold, the agreement is void.

Bluffton’s commitment — which also would be paid using fees collected as part of the Buckwalter Place multicounty industrial park agreement and was met with praise Tuesday by County Councilman Mike Covert — comes with some strings as well.

The motion passed Tuesday by town leaders requires that TCL make an effort to partner with Kroger and other private sector groups, meet with officials of the Don Ryan Center for Innovation to work on ways to maximize the school’s economic development impact, keep construction costs to minimum, and ensure that the other private funding commitments come to fruition.

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.

At a glance

The Technical College of the Lowcountry is seeking $11.5 million in public funding to build a new culinary institute in Bluffton’s Buckwalter Place development. Funding commitments so far:

▪  The Beaufort County School District has agreed to chip in $2.5 million over 20 years.

▪  The Beaufort County Council has given preliminary approval for a roughly $5 million contribution.

▪  The Bluffton Town Council has agreed to pay up to $500,000 over 10 years.