Straw poll puts Laughlin in lead for Hilton Head mayor

It was hardly a scientific tally, but two-term Town Councilman Drew Laughlin led six other mayoral candidates in a straw poll Tuesday by the Hilton Head Hospitality Association, with Tom Crews and Ed McCullough close behind.

The poll -- with 54 total votes cast -- was taken by the Lowcountry Business Circle after a debate at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa. The event was hosted by the hospitality association, sponsored by Performing Services Audio Visual and moderated by WHHI-TV "Talk of the Town" host Jane Jude.

About 90 people attended, the association said.

Laughlin, who represents Ward 3 on Town Council, had about 30 percent of the vote in the straw poll. Crews, an architect, collected about 28 percent. McCullough, co-founder of Swipe4Charities, followed with about 20 percent.

Jim Collett, retiree and former chairman of the town's Board of Zoning Appeals, had 9 percent. Ward 4 Town Councilman John Safay had 7 percent. Ward 1 Town Councilman Bill Ferguson had about 6 percent. Dave Myers, part-owner of laser manufacturer Kigre Inc., received no votes.

Mayor Tom Peeples is not seeking reelection, so voters will elect a new mayor for the first time in 15 years in the nonpartisan election.

Melissa Monge, owner of Guardian Angels Sitting Service, said she picked Collett in the straw poll, in part because he thinks the town should better market the island to tourists, retirees and families.

"I really like the experience he has on the island and the contacts that he has made," Monge said. "I believe marketing is key, and this island could use a lot more marketing. That's why I chose him."

Eric Todd, secretary/treasurer of the hospitality association, said he was pleased with all the candidates' "action-oriented" statements about supporting hospitality on the island.

Some of the candidates -- Collett, Ferguson, Laughlin and Safay -- supported increases in accommodations taxes charged on overnight lodging and hospitality taxes to generate more money for tourism marketing.

Crews called for a comprehensive marketing plan for the island. McCullough opposed any tax increase and said more money for marketing could be found by cutting salaries of town staff. Myers opposed spending more on marketing and questioned its effectiveness.

Todd, though, said he's not sure charging more to visitors who pay the taxes is the right solution.

"I think we do need to look at where we spend our current A-tax dollars ... as to what they're actually doing for the island and the community," he said.

Todd said the island has benefited from the Gulf oil spill, but visitors being diverted to Hilton Head are masking actual conditions.

"It's going to be a difficult year in 2011 ... ," he said. "The biggest thing is, how do we get people to come down here and spend their money with us? Once we get people down here, we'll get them back year over year."

The candidates responded to this question asked during Tuesday's forum:

Are more dollars needed to market the island and how would you fund and manage that effort?

Safay: Has been working with state legislators on a proposal to increase the accommodations tax by 1 percent, which he said would generate $1.2 million in additional revenue to "go right into the marketing effort."

"We can do it quickly and without effect to residents, since the tax is paid by visitors. That would make us in balance with Savannah and a point below Charleston."

Ferguson: Favors an increase in accommodations taxes to 1 percent or more and says the town needs to consider providing money directly to advertising and marketing agencies, as opposed to giving money to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce for marketing. "We need to market directly to the industry. The system we have is adequate, but based on a middle-man theory."

Myers: Opposes spending more on tourism marketing. "We've spent a lot of money on this, and I'm not convinced of the effectiveness."

Crews: Believes a comprehensive plan is needed to market Hilton Head as a community. "We need to market to a broader scope. Our future economic success depends on attracting young professionals to the island, as well as visitors."

Laughlin: Supports increasing accommodations and hospitality taxes but not sales tax increases. "We are under-funding our marketing effort, and we need to bolster that. We also need to be focused on the affluent traveler, the business traveler and the future homebuyer."

McCullough: Opposes raising taxes and suggested additional marketing funding could be found by cutting salaries for town staff. "Raising taxes out of a great recession is a really, really bad idea ... There are significant savings that can and will be found (in the town's budget) to generate additional revenue for marketing."

Collett: Opposes a 1 percent increase in the sales tax but supports an increase in accommodations taxes. "We need a plan to advertise to people to live and work here. We need to work on marketing Hilton Head as the premier family destination location in the U.S. If we lose that reputation, it will be very hard to get it back."