Chamber should look to private sector for funding

If the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce wants to build a new welcome center, and its business members want to pay for it, go for it.

Chamber officials say they don't plan to seek accommodations-tax funding or any other taxpayer support to build a new welcome center on a town-owned site that sits at the island's doorstep.

The estimated cost to build a 6,700-square-foot facility to replace the current center is $3 million to $4 million.

There should be no taxpayer support to build a new welcome center. The Town of Hilton Head Island has done quite enough already. In 1993, the town gave the chamber and Coastal Discovery Museum $1.25 million in accommodations tax money to buy the former restaurant. In 2008, it bought the property from the two organizations for $2.3 million.

The town leases the building to the chamber for $1 a year. The three-year lease calls for the chamber to have by October an approved redevelopment plan, including building permits and Town Council approval for the exterior. Otherwise, the chamber can lease the existing building for two more years at $2,000 a month.

The chamber has another three years to finish building the center once they get redevelopment approval and enter into a new 50-year lease.

Chamber officials say the money it received from the town in 2008 will be "reinvested" in the property. In addition, the chamber will seek private sector investment and conventional financing for the project.

In seeking private investment and financing, the chamber will have to make its case for the viability of a welcome center, even a high-tech one, in today's travel world. Chamber officials maintain that a destination welcome center like the one they envision can be successful.

The goal should be to get people to stay longer and spend more money while they're here. People won't come here because of the welcome center, but they might do more, see more and enjoy their stay more based on what they learn about the area.

The caveat for taxpayers is to watch what happens after the welcome center is built. How will its construction and operation affect other areas of chamber operations and requests for public funding, including accommodations-tax funding -- and possibly sales-tax funding -- for tourism marketing?

Unless the center is self-sustaining, there would be some impact on overall operations.

Chamber officials also say the project is very conceptual at this stage. Final design will rely on more community input.

We suggest they tap the design experience of an architect who knows how to design a Lowcountry building. The renderings displayed at a recent town Design Review Board meeting don't say Lowcountry to us, and they should.