Lay all cards on table for Heritage request

News that the Heritage Classic Foundation has come back to the Town of Hilton Head Island asking for about $3.2 million over five years is a mixed bag.

Ideally, the foundation would be announcing a title sponsor willing to pay the estimated $7 million to $8 million a year for top billing at the island's PGA Tour event.

But the request for town funding isn't all that surprising given that we are well into the month of June with no such announcement.

Today, Town Council is to take up a resolution on the foundation's request in a specially called meeting. That tells us time is of the essence, but so is full disclosure.

The council has a budgetary minefield to navigate. It gave first-vote approval Tuesday to a budget that calls for a property tax rate increase, hardly a popular thing to do. The island's real estate industry has objected to it, as have other taxpayers who don't want to see their tax bills go up and who aren't convinced the town has done enough to hold down spending.

Full disclosure on the Heritage deal is paramount to gaining public support for town participation. Without it, there will be too many questions, too many blanks to fill in with incomplete or inaccurate information.

The foundation must lay out in detail the entire funding plan in open session, including names of companies willing to participate and at what levels. When a group that accepts taxpayer support, as the foundation has, comes to a public entity for even more taxpayer support, the veil must be lifted.

The town paid $1 million to help stage this year's tournament, getting 16, 30-second television spots in return. The foundation also received $160,000 in local accommodations tax money to be used for advertising the tournament.

We supported the one-time commitment from the town and from Beaufort County to help the tournament get through a year with no title sponsor, but now we're looking at five years and $3.2 million. That $3.2 million would buy 40 ad spots over the five years, as the deal was described Tuesday.

Tournament director Steve Wilmot has said the tournament is considering an arrangement in which a primary sponsor agrees to pay most of the cost, while secondary sponsors cover the rest.

Who else would be on the line for the amount being asked of the town? Who would be paying more and how much more? Context is critical in weighing this request.

Wilmot says the tour has not given the foundation a drop-dead date for coming up with a new sponsorship plan, but the clock is ticking. The tour typically unveils its schedule in late fall and wants to secure the long-term future of as many events as possible as it works out new television contracts.

Mayor Drew Laughlin said Tuesday that he favored using a mix of accommodations and hospitality taxes, with the possibility of again dipping into the town's emergency advertising reserve account. That's where the town got the $160,000 earlier this year.

But money spent on the Heritage is money not available for other spending, and that has to be part of the equation and part of the public discussion about this request.

Laughlin said, "I'm told it is necessary for this package to work for the town to participate at this level."

Before the town makes any commitment, the council and the public should be shown in detail how and why that is so.