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Accommodations tax: Committee favors funding tourism
By Charles Swenson
Funds for a beach patrol and maintenance projects were cut to help boost spending for tourism marketing, under a proposal approved last week by the Georgetown County Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee. And more money will be available for marketing if County Council adopts the panel’s recommendation to cut funds for a tennis complex in Litchfield.
“We’re all in favor of spending that money to get more people to the area,” said Will Dieter, who chairs the committee. “That’s what we’re focused on.”
The county has $437,000 on hand from the state’s 2 percent tax on short-term rentals. It received nearly $500,000 in requests in its spring grant cycle.
The Tourism Management Commission asked for $250,000 to fund its marketing efforts. It received $175,000 in the fall round of accommodations tax grants, $25,000 more than it asked for and the advisory committee recommended.
County Council has final say over how the money is allocated, and approved the extra funds to help boost tourism in a sluggish economy.
The tourism commission, which also receives 30 percent of all county accommodations tax revenue, decided to increase its request for addition funds from $300,000 to $425,000, said Annette Fisher, president of the Chamber of Commerce. The chamber provides staff support for the tourism commission under a contract with County Council.
After agreeing to fund requests from property owners associations at the Litchfield Beaches and Garden City, and maintenance of the landscaped portion of Highway 17 in Litchfield, the tax advisory committee trimmed requests from the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office and the Parks and Recreation Department.
Sheriff Lane Cribb asked for $93,000 to continue the two-deputy beach patrol. That includes $83,000 in personnel costs. The rest is for equipment, including $10,000 to buy night-vision goggles.
Committee member Don Stuart questioned why the patrol can’t be funded from the sheriff’s operating budget.
“It’s tourism impact that requires the additional patrol,” committee member Dana Arneman said.
“If we had zero tourists we would still get the request,” Stuart said.
“If we had zero tourists we wouldn’t have money to do anything,” committee member Theodore Russell said.
So the committee agreed to recommend $75,000.
Parks and Recreation asked for $32,650 to maintain beach accesses at Garden City and the south end parking lot at Pawleys Island, and to sweep the Bike the Neck path.
Arneman noted that the request included paying the cost of a dump truck (at $25.50 an hour) and a sweeper (at $17.80 a mile) that the county already owns. The committee agreed to recommend $25,000.
That left $213,656 for the tourism commission.
“It’s probably the most important thing we’ll vote on to improve the overall economy,” committee member Bill Renault said. “It deserves our support.”
He suggested the committee go back through the requests and find $36,344 to meet the full amount of the marketing request.
Stuart asked Fisher what would be cut if the tourism allocation fell short.
“Pieces of the package,” she said. “In a tourism economy, the more you’re spending, the better the return.”
The committee also had three requests to extend grants previously approved for Highway 17 landscaping ($40,000), repairs of the town clock at the Rice Museum ($75,000) and construction of a tennis complex at Litchfield ($257,000). The first two passed without comment.
“I question the whole validity of the tennis courts, and the timing,” Renault said.
He suggested the project be delayed or the allocation reduced.
Scott Proctor, the county finance director, said the issue before the committee was to extend the availability of funds, which is due to expire in mid-June.
Dieter said it didn’t make sense “to hold up that large amount. It could be better allocated.”
Parks and Recreation could reapply for the money in the fall, he said.
The committee agreed.
If County Council supports that recommendation, the committee will hold a special meeting to reallocate the $257,000.
The committee considered further cuts to the beach patrol and Parks and Recreation maintenance request, but decided against them after questioning Fisher about the tourism commission request.
It includes $30,000 to increase the size of magazine ads that will feature the commission’s new Hammock Coast campaign, in which a “typical local” will try to persuade visitors not to discover the area’s charms.
Fisher said the ads could run at the original size.
Another $50,000 is for photography, “a professional photo shoot,” Fisher said. “We’ve never done that before.”
It will include hiring a model for the “local,” she said. But she agreed that the budget for that item could be trimmed by $6,344 to balance the committee’s recommendation.
Dieter will present the recommendations to County Council on Tuesday.
“I know they’re big on infrastructure,” he said after the meeting. “We’ll see what happens.”