Monday, February 15, 2010

Hilton Head must win ‘marketing arms race’

Bluffton Today

Thomas Viljack is a friend of mine. He is also a builder and developer who has done a number of interesting projects around Old Town Bluffton. Thomas is also from a military family and is always informed on armed forces issues. Recently, he brought to my attention a matter involving apparent mistreatment by the federal judiciary of a group of Navy Seals. While I rarely get involved in federal issues, this one seemed so patently unfair it must be an exception.

Since our community is privileged to be home to many veterans and active duty service men and women, silence on this matter would be insulting. Consequently, I invited Thomas to Columbia, we wrote a resolution in support of our Navy Seals and placed it before the General Assembly, where it passed unanimously and expeditiously in both the House and Senate and is on the way to Washington. I have personally sent copies to Congressman Wilson as well as Sens. Graham and DeMint.

There is currently a misperception that your representative is trying to raise your taxes, specifically the sales tax, from 7 percent to 8 percent. This is not true. I am not trying to raise your taxes. I cannot state it more plainly than that.

What I have done is this: I have entered a bill on behalf of the town of Hilton Head Island and the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce to allow Hilton Head to have a local option sales tax. What does this mean? If the measure passes the Legislature and is signed by the governor, then Hilton Head may hold a referendum to decide whether the voters wish to impose upon themselves an additional penny sales tax in addition to the 7 percent already levied.

The reason the town and the chamber have asked for this local option sales tax has to do with the fact that the future prosperity of Hilton Head and surrounding communities is tied to the number and quality of visitors to our part of the Lowcountry.

For years, competing resort areas have dedicated marketing dollars at levels that literally dwarf what the local chamber can raise and spend. The fact that the Hilton Head area has managed to maintain its market share is largely a testament to the excellence of the product we have, and to the extraordinary effectiveness of the Hilton Head Island/ Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. Bill Miles and his cadre have done great things with comparatively modest resources. It is no surprise that they are perennially rated either the top chamber in the country or among the top three in the country.

However, all of our principal competitors have raised the stakes with massive infusions of marketing resources. There is something of a marketing arms race among destinations around the world. This comes at a time of vulnerability for us as our flagship promotional event, the Heritage, is facing sponsorship questions. Also, many of the resort communities on the island are maturing into buildout and are therefore marketing less aggressively.

Considering these challenges, it is not surprising that those entrusted with the future prosperity of the Hilton Head area would look seriously at whatever might be added to their defensive arsenal. A local option sales tax is one possible weapon.

Consistent with the tenets of home rule, this tax will be only happen with the consent of the governed. I’ll have more on this as it develops.