Three years ago, then Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin, University of South Carolina Beaufort Chancellor Jane Upshaw and others began work to bring the university back to the island.
If they could find a way to bring the university's hospitality management program to a new south-end campus, they believed they could help boost the entire school's reputation. And more importantly, they could reshape a dated corridor of the island -- and hopefully kickstart similar redevelopment efforts in other parts of the town, including the Coligny area. These updates were -- and still are -- key to preserving the island's reputation as a top-tier resort spot in an increasingly competitive tourism destination market, contend town leaders.
Today, the new $29.5 million project is a done deal. A contract is signed. A funding source that relies exclusively on public money is locked in. And conceptual plans on what the campus will look like are due this summer.
But it's a dream realized that has lost its most visible advocates. Laughlin lost his reelection bid and Upshaw is retiring; she says the campus ultimately will be her replacement's legacy, not her own.
That leaves new mayor David Bennett -- who has been critical of the project's planning -- to see through a project stained by complaints that the new campus is unwanted, that the public was not given adequate say and that the campus will cause even more traffic congestion at the Sea Pines traffic circle.
And new questions are coming to light about whether it's a wise decision to spend millions on a campus for only 200 students in a program that is touted by USCB as top rate, but whose own administrators say they don't know basic information about, such as its graduation rate and comparable enrollment numbers. That leaves only anecdotal evidence that the program is worth the taxpayer investment.
Understanding how we got here, and why there's no appetite to go back no matter how much outrage exists, requires a lesson in financing and a trip back 16 years.
NO TURNING BACK
In 1999, the town, county, Beaufort County School District and the Hilton Head Island Public Service District entered into agreement to forgo a portion of tax dollars in a certain geographic area and instead funnel the money toward a list of public improvement projects. Much of the island's south end outside the plantation gates benefited from more than $60 million in improvements, including new parks and paths, road improvements, sewer service extensions and land purchases.
This financing method -- called tax increment financing or TIF -- was set to expire last year, but town officials sought to extend the funding plan for another decade to raise an additional $50 million for more improvements.
Graphic: What is proposed
The preliminary master plan. Click or tap image for a larger view. (Drew Martin/Staff graphic)
The centerpiece: a new, $24.5 million USCB campus on the island, with more than $1 million in nearby traffic improvements and the opportunity for the school to fund another $4 million Osher Lifelong Learning Institute building in the future.
Town officials originally planned to put the new campus in the Coligny area. But residents' outcry forced the Town Council to abandon that site and instead pursue one on Office Park Road -- where the school was housed before it moved to the Hilton Head Gateway Campus in greater Bluffton.
"When we were leaving the island (to open the Bluffton campus in 2004), there were a great number of people who were upset with USCB," Upshaw said. "I told them then, 'If you want us to have a presence here, you have to come to us with a plan to build a building.' That seems to have made an impression, and now you have a vehicle (through the tax district) to do it."
While extending the tax district's life had the unanimous support of County Council and the school board, county leaders wanted to ensure that their money would go toward the campus only, said Josh Gruber, deputy county administrator and county attorney. Otherwise, county money would have gone toward some projects, like those planned for the Coligny area, that primarily benefit Hilton Head residents, council members said at the time.
"With that in mind, we crafted language that made our contribution specific to USCB alone," Gruber said. "We were happy to partner, but it was (County) Council's intent to safeguard that project."
Because of that, killing the USCB project now would not only imperil the nearly $25 million in Coligny and mid-island projects still to be done, it would collapse the TIF extension, forcing the town to pay back the money it already has collected under the extension.
Bennett is adamant he won't let that happen.
"That's done," he says of the Office Park Road campus plan.
RESIDENTS LEFT OUT
Opponents argue the consideration of that stipulation was not made clear during a series of public meetings last summer.
Former Hilton Head Town Councilwoman Kate Keep and Sea Pines' Community Services Associates board member Joe Kernan have argued the lack of a centralized meeting about whether to have a campus at all blindsided residents who didn't realize it was already set in stone.
"Why wasn't the USCB campus properly vetted?" Bennett asked during his campaign last fall. "I'm still trying to figure out where we as a public came together and agreed on this project."
Opponents never had the chance to pack Town Hall to argue their case, so they're forced to try to now, say Keep, Kernan and other opponents.
"I've heard a couple of times the phrase, 'We have to use it or lose it,'" Keep told Town Council last month. "The 'it' is TIF money and the 'lose it' caused a great deal of urgency with the TIF district expiring, and it seems to be the impetus for rushing into a memo of understanding."
"Quite frankly, the situation (looks) to me like a group of people who had $22 million in their pocket that was burning a hole there," she said.
But per the already-approved agreement, without USCB, there is no tax district, town manager Steve Riley and Gruber agree.
"The resolution the county adopted, that was all their doing and a surprise to me," Riley said. "I didn't know they were doing that. We didn't ask for that resolution ... It ties that commitment to USCB and tells you don't come back and ask for a chance to change it."
Now, as the campus faces new scrutiny, Bennett has settled. He was concerned that proper due diligence wasn't performed before the campus plans came together. But he also has accepted that to keep his hopes for Coligny improvements intact, he must support a campus plan that he has previously questioned.
"What I've said to people is I'm going to put better planning in place for town projects," Bennett said. "That's why we immediately created the Circle to Circle Committee to study that area and do our best to make that campus a community asset."
WHAT WE GET
By Laughlin and Upshaw's accounts, there is something for everyone in the campus project.
The more prestigious the growing campus becomes, the better off all of Beaufort County will be, they say. And, they add, what better place for a hospitality program than within a few miles of the internationally renowned island's roster of top-tier hotels, resorts and private communities?
Despite those claims, though, the $24.5 million project will benefit a degree program with only about 200 students. University officials say they expect that number to grow to 400 and say the program is one of their most successful.
However, university officials also say they do not calculate program-specific graduation rates and could not provide them when requested. And since USCB has recently changed the software it uses, it's difficult to assess the university's claim that the program's enrollment is increasing.
And while both Laughlin and Upshaw advocate for the campus, each hesitate to claim the project as part of their legacy.
Instead, they emphasize that the idea was a collaboration in which everyone found their own, equal rewards.
For Laughlin, the campus will stand as a testament to his vision for redeveloping the dated corridors of the island, similar to his work to revitalize the old mall at Shelter Cove into the current mixed-use development that includes a Kroger, restaurants, a park, a playground and shops, he said.
Story continues after video
For Upshaw, the project delivers USCB's cornerstone program to its closest partners in the resort and hospitality industry on the island, she said.
The local governments' tax district also foots a bill that the university couldn't afford on its own, she said. The university will contribute only $2.5 million to the initial campus construction with funding from the Beaufort-Jasper Higher Education Commission and the University of South Carolina Development Foundation, according to town documents.
For Beaufort County and its public school district, the plan represents continued investment in USCB.
More than 10 years ago, County Council was behind the push for the New River special tax district, which raised more than $25 million to build USCB's Hilton Head Gateway Campus. Over the same time the school district has repeatedly supported the university financially and through programming to help place local students into USCB degree tracks.
Together, they have an interest in seeing the university they seeded flourish.
"If it hadn't been for this council, I think everybody knows there wouldn't be a USCB (as it is now)," said County Council chairman Paul Sommerville. "We have just literally taken the bull by the horns and supported USCB because it serves our purpose ... attracting business, attracting tourism, educating our children -- all the things that are near and dear to our hearts."
In March, Town Council approved a formal agreement for financing and overseeing the new campus construction.
The resolution to adopt the agreement needed only one public vote, which still angers many residents. Since then, they have bombarded Bennett in emails and repeatedly during public comments at meetings over his support for the project.
At the time of the March vote, the Bennett family was on vacation, and opponents accused the mayor of flip-flopping on a campaign promise to oppose the campus.
Last month Bennett fired back. During a Town Council meeting, he contended he never campaigned against the campus and only wanted more proper planning before its approval.
Now the project inches forward, with conceptual plans for the basic layout of the campus going before the town's Planning Commission next month, Riley said.
Then the project is in the hands of USCB, which will hire engineering and construction firms to craft the formal schematics for the campus' main building, lagoon and expanded parking lot.
The town plans to demolish the existing buildings on the campus site around the New Year.
Construction will begin in 2017 and leaders intend to open the campus for its first classes for the fall semester of 2018.
"I look forward to it being wonderfully successful," Upshaw said. "I believe that when it happens and it's up and running, all of those naysayers will embrace what happens and move forward in a positive way."
Old and new
Use the slider handle at the bottom of the images to compare the appearance of an existing building on Office Park Road to a proposed building for the planned USCB Hospitality Management campus. Touchscreen users can move the handle by tapping the slider track. (Rendering: Wood + Partners Inc. Photo: File staff photo)
- USCB, Hilton Head Island strike formal deal for hospitality campus on Office Park Road, March 3, 2015
- Hilton Head unveils USCB campus plans, Dec. 12, 2014
- Shelter Cove, USCB campus hot topics in Hilton Head mayoral forum, Oct. 8, 2014
- Construction on USCB campus on Hilton Head could start in 2016, Sept. 30, 2014
- Developers, town push for Hilton Head tax-district extension, Feb. 23, 2014