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Capital Sales Tax: Parks pitched as economic development tools

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Years ago, a group of Georgetown County residents envisioned a county with up-scale sports facilities that would spur a wave of recreational tourism while providing better places for local children — and adults — to play.

They looked at it as a win/win, from a new boat landing on the Sampit River in Georgetown to the ball fields at 8 Oaks Park to the tennis center at Stables Park in Litchfield. Sportsmen would bring their dollars to Georgetown County to compete in everything from fishing tournaments to organized softball, baseball, tennis, soccer and football. Recreation could become an engine to generate dollars. That vision is coming into focus with the opening of new fields and facilities that are being constructed through the county’s Capital Improvement Plan and funded through impact fees paid by builders.

That impact fee, imposed when it looked like Georgetown County would be overrun with new residents and commercial development years ago, is a millstone around their necks today, developers say.

And the income from impact fees has slowed to a trickle — it brought in just $750,000 last year.

On Tuesday, County Council approved second reading of a proposal to eliminate impact fees — if voters approve an additional 1-cent sales tax for capital improvements Nov. 6.

Funding would shift to the sales tax, estimated to produce at least $5 million a year over its lifespan of eight years.

A committee selected 21 projects at a cost of nearly $40 million to fund with the proposed sales tax revenues. The top priority is the dredging of the shipping channel in Winyah Bay for Georgetown’s port, a $5.5 million expenditure, promising additional state and federal dredging funds and job growth.

The last 11 of the 21 projects to be funded with the new sales tax revenue are recreation facilities at a cost of $12.2 million.

The misconception about the Nov. 6 referendum, says Bill Crowther, chairman of Pennies for Progress, a group promoting passage of the sales tax, is that residents are voting on the projects themselves.

“The recreation projects, except for the one to improve Wachesaw Park, were already on the Capital Improvement Plan,” he said. “They were designated to be built and funded on an earlier timetable. If the tax fails, the projects will still be completed. They are all excellent proposals that enhance the quality of life here. They will be just be funded in a different manner.”

Charlie Luquire, chairman of Stop the Tax Hike committee, said the recreation picture is a “complicated scenario.”

He said $9.7 million for six recreation projects were carried over from the old Capital Improvement Plan.

“They were part of the vision of 2004-06 when growth would pay for them,” Luquire said. “No sales tax that would burden taxpayers would be necessary. “The other five projects — $2.54 million — are new projects added to the sales tax list to garner support and are brand new; for example, the $1.17 million for Wachesaw Park was introduced after the tax committee was established.

“Our position on them is included in our overall position that this is no time to impose a $40 million sales tax. We have no problem with leaving them in the long-term CIP, and with them being done when County Council deems we can afford them. We disagree with locking them into spending as this sales tax proposal does.” The county’s $33 million recreation master plan touches most communities. The majority of the money from the 1-cent tax will go toward enhancing those existing facilities.

The $1.8 million Retreat Park in Litchfield is nearing completion with new ball fields and a central building for rest rooms and concessions scheduled to open in 2013. That’s about it for the Neck, as far as new facilities go. Remaining projects for the area on the capital improvements list are: bikeways, $500,000; a sports court at Waccamaw Regional Recreation Center, $40,000; and improvements to Wachesaw Park, $1,170,000. There’s a second phase at Stables Park to add a fifth playing field and there’s room at the Waccamaw Tennis Complex for 10 more courts in the future.

County Administrator Sel Hemingway said facilities at Stables Park would bring the county’s relationship with the Waccamaw schools from good to great during a ribbon-cutting ceremony this week attended by the Waccamaw High cross country team and girls tennis team. The Warriors plan to use the multi-purpose fields at Stables Park for a cross country course. The tennis team is already using the tennis courts for practice and matches.

Having a new home ends years of scheduling woes for coach Joan Cribb. The team bounced between Wachesaw, DeBordieu and the Racquet Club for court time. Cross country coaches at Waccamaw High Brian White and Rob DelBagno see the potential for running events at Stables Park.

“We love it,” DelBagno said Wednesday afternoon. “We could host the Lower State there or any number of big Saturday meets.”

The Lowcountry Invitational in Charleston attracted 27 teams this year, and the coaches see no reason a meet at Stables wouldn’t do as well.

“It would be a big boost for the economy,” White said. “This is a perfect location. Why not come here?”

Beyond the economic benefits, White says the cooperation between the Georgetown County Recreation Department and the schools is good for everybody. He compared the Stables Park facility to Heritage Park in Simpsonville where Hillcrest High holds its cross country meets.

White says Stables is ideal for cross country meets because coaches and fans can see their team’s runners as they go around the perimeter of the soccer fields. And runners are not on the public roads, needing police escorts during races.

“You can’t go wrong when you invest in kids,” he said. “I’m just thrilled they let us use it.”

Proposed recreational spending of funds from the 1-cent sales tax: Andrews Regional Recreation Center: $3.75 million

Northwest Regional Recreation Center - Choppee: $3.75 million

Multipurpose field complex - 8 Oaks: $470,000

Bikeways (Waccamaw): $500,000

Regional park running tracks: $225,000

Community park enhancements: $600,000

Tee ball/coach pitch facility - Catclaw Park (Andrews): $950,000

Wachesaw Park improvements: $1.17 million

Multipurpose fields - Olive Park (Andrews): $300,000

Waccamaw Regional Recreation Center sports court: $40,000

Tennis courts - 8 Oaks: $450,000

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