Bed tax grants should focus on bringing tourists

Groups angling for Hilton Head Island's state accommodations tax money, especially those already receiving six- and seven-figure allotments, need a big dose of reality.

Money available for grants from the state's 2 percent tax on short-term lodging has its limits. And doling out the money is a zero-sum game: The more money one applicant gets; the less another gets.

Requests this year total $2.3 million. But when you take into account money already committed through advance grants, only about $815,000 is available for new grants.

It is increasingly important that the town's Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee set out clear guiding principles for its recommendations.

We suggest the committee focus primarily on projects that would draw tourists here.

That would exclude such requests as $100,000 for the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra to cover expenses and build up its reserves; $200,000 for the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina to help pay for facility maintenance; $91,300 for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce to pay for a hospitality worker training program; and $300,000 for Hilton Head Island Airport to pay for fire and law enforcement services, facility improvements and advertising. Most of the airport request is for deferred maintenance.

The arts center and the orchestra will get other accommodations tax money through separate grants made a year in advance.

The chamber, as the town's designated marketing organization, gets about $1 million a year and has asked for another $415,000 in marketing money beyond that. Even with an emphasis on bringing tourists here, the committee should make sure the chamber can justify more money coming its way.

Four entities get advance funding from the grant pool. In addition to the arts center and the orchestra, the Native Island Business and Community Association gets money in advance for its annual Gullah Festival, which comes in February, about the time the town awards grants for the year. The town is the other recipient of advance funding.

In 2010, the four received 85 percent of the amounts awarded them in 2009. For 2011, the town awarded 82 percent of their 2009 allocations. The arts center is to get $339,924, the orchestra $139,400, the town $861,000 and the Gullah Festival $75,000. All could get more if bed tax collections are more than anticipated.

Shaking things up this year with a request for $370,000 -- about 45 percent of the $815,000 expected to be awarded -- is the Heritage Classic Foundation. It's the first time the foundation has asked for advertising dollars, and the request comes as it anxiously seeks a new title sponsor and relies on $2 million in town and county funding and its reserves to stage the 2011 tournament without that sponsor.

Town Council will make the final decision on all the requests early next year. We don't envy the tough decisions ahead. Accommodations tax money is an important component of every applicants' budgets.

But an emphasis on bringing more people -- and tourism dollars -- to the area should help sort out the requests.