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Tax grants: Tight budgets drive requests for a share of tourism funds

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The state parks department can’t fund a major renovation of 40-year-old facilities at Huntington Beach State Park.

The Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire Department has seen a drop in revenue from impact fees that pay for new equipment. Now it needs a new ambulance.

The uncertain economy has cut into donations to the Litchfield Corridor Beautification Committee as it tries to maintain the landscaping it’s planted along Highway 17.

“We’re continuing to see requests for infrastructure,” said Will Dieter, who chairs the Georgetown County Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee.

At a review this week of applications for a share of the county’s revenue from the state tax on short-term rentals, the committee heard how applicants are trying to do more with less.

There are four groups seeking a total of $324,366 in grants for tourism-related activities. The county has about $300,000 available.

“That makes our job easier,” Dieter said.

The largest request, $200,000, comes from the county Tourism Management Commission, the group charged by County Council with tourism promotion. It has a $675,000 budget, which is funded through a mandatory 30 percent share of accommodation tax revenue plus additional tax grants.

The commission started the fiscal year with $259,000 in the bank, and got a $120,000 matching grant from the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. Along with marketing for beach and golf vacations, the commission plans to upgrade its website, a key component of its marketing plan.

“A lot of our content is original to 2006, 2005,” said Sally Hogan, tourism coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce, which provides staff support to the commission.

Online marketing led to $14 million in tourism spending in the county last year, Hogan told the committee, citing a study by Texas A&M University.

The committee typically recommends County Council approve funds for marketing, because that’s what generates more accommodations tax revenue. It will vote on recommendations Sept. 8.

The Friends of Huntington Beach State Park want $62,366 to upgrade facilities at the north end beach access. “These facilities are 40 years old,” said Brenda Magers, the park superintendent. “They’re worn out.” The park generated over $95,000 in accommodations tax last year from campers. The friends believe better facilities will increase that amount.

Committee member Bill Renault asked about raising park admission fees.

“We’re looking for other revenue, but the gate may not be the best way since we want to get them in the park,” Magers said.

Bob LeClerc, the friends treasurer, said the group is trying to find other sources of funds for the park, but hasn’t identified any other for this particular project.

The fire department said nearly a third of patients carried last year by its three ambulances were non-residents. It will cost $237,000 to replace it.

“Impact fees are down,” Fire Chief Norman Knight told the committee.

He acknowledged that the funds are for tourism, but said public safety is good advertising for the community. Visitors “come here to enjoy themselves,” Knight told the committee. In an emergency “they want to be able to pick up the phone and call 911 and get someone here quickly.”

The beautification committee completed planting this year, and is now looking at about $90,000 a year in maintenance, said Tom Leis, who chairs the group. “We are working hard to increase our income and be self-sufficient. We are clearly not there yet,” he said.

It wants $20,000 in accommodations tax to supplement donations.

As a cost-saving, the group has “a handshake” with the sheriff’s office to use jail inmates to pick up litter one day a week, Leis said. The group now pays for six pickups a week.

Now that the landscaping is done, “it’s very important to maintain it in a way to which you’ve become accustomed,” Leis said.

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