Hilton Head Institute offers great promise

Hilton Head Island has always been a pleasant place to slow down, escape the grind, think, explore, interact, have fun, rejuvenate.

A new festival to capitalize on those attributes deserves support.

The Hilton Head Island Institute plans to stage interesting lectures, panel discussions and workshops annually during a 10-day festival.

The private groups that support this enterprise should go for it with gusto. The festival has great potential to brand the island as the place to be for arts, culture and education as well as beach, golf, tennis and muted development.

The concept has been bubbling for a long time, and it has earned support from the Greater Island Council, the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, the University of South Carolina Beaufort, Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, Island School Council for the Arts, the Hilton Head Choral Society and the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, which has given it seed grants of up to $65,000.

The Hilton Head Institute -- with a working title of the festival "Renaissance at Hilton Head" -- will be modeled something like the Aspen Institute in Colorado and the Chautauqua Institution in New York. The local institute chairman is Allen Ward, a member of the class of 2007 of the Greenville-based Liberty Fellowship, which is based on the Aspen Institute model.

The concept reminds people of the Renaissance Weekend started on Hilton Head more than 30 years ago by former Sea Pines president and ambassador to Great Britain Philip Lader and his wife, Linda. It is still going strong in other locations, still attracting Nobel laureates, Supreme Court justices, writers, business leaders and politicians to long weekends in a vacation setting, simply to talk privately about interesting issues.

The new institute will be a great challenge. It will need speakers with a wow-factor to get attention and fill seats. That is expensive. It will require at least a year to plan, and a staff of full-time employees and volunteers.

It should be open to the public, but financed and operated privately, not by the government. Any tax involvement should be limited to its competing for accommodations tax money along with other groups. And it should not involve building new edifices. Hilton Head has plenty of locations where this can work.

People love to explore the universe around them, and Beaufort County has for centuries offered a beautiful, historically fascinating, warm place to do it. Still, the festival will fail if it is not first class. It must be done well, even if that means starting small.