Hilton Head Chamber plans new $3 million welcome center

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Hilton Head Chamber plans new $3 million welcome center

By TOM BARTON
tbarton@islandpacket.com
843-706-8169
Published Thursday, January 27, 2011   |  1130 Words  |  

Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce officials say they want to be a beacon for redevelopment on the island with plans for a new welcome center, a project estimated to cost a total of $3 million to $4 million.

Their proposal comes as more people are turning to mobile devices and the Internet for travel planning, and welcome centers around the state have seen a drop in traffic, according to tourism officials. But the chamber says the new center will be a modern, tech-savvy complex that will draw more traffic and enhance tourists' visits to the island.

The chamber on Tuesday presented conceptual plans to the town's Design Review Board. A 6,700-square-foot building would be built on the site of the center it would replace -- a 9,000-square-foot building built as a restaurant in the 1970s. The location at 100 William Hilton Parkway is near the island's entrance, an area the town has targeted for redevelopment. Ray Deal, chamber controller, said the building is moldy, uninviting and ill-suited to accommodate new technology.

"Interaction with current technology is essential in this day and age," Deal said. "We'd like this new center to be able to accommodate touch-screen LED TVs and iPad and iPhone applications we are launching."

The chamber is still working out how to pay for the project. The estimated cost of $3 million to $4 million would include demolition, site preparation and construction, Deal said.

Chamber spokeswoman Charlie Clark said the chamber plans to launch a capital campaign to raise money for a public-private partnership.

The chamber has spent $115, 285 thus fair for engineering and design services, she said. The money came from about $1 million the chamber received when the town purchased the 3.3-acre site from the chamber and the Coastal Discovery Museum for $2.3 million in 2008. The town leases the building back to the chamber for $1 a year.

Town officials at the time said the purchase freed the museum from the aging building and allowed it to focus money on its site at Honey Horn, and it also gave the town control of a parcel in a high-traffic area with scenic views of the marsh.

The three-year lease agreement stipulates the museum be completely moved out of the welcome center and that the chamber have development-plan approval, building permits and Town Council approval for the exterior of the new welcome center by October. Otherwise, the chamber can lease the current building for another two years at $2,000 a month.

The chamber must complete construction of the new welcome center within three years, according to agreements with the town.

Under the agreements, the chamber can stay on the site for 50 years. After that, the land and any building on it becomes town property.

CENTER NUMBERS DROP

Fewer travelers are using welcome centers, tourism officials say.

Visitors to the state's nine welcome centers have decreased since 2005, from about 2.5 million that year to about 2.1 million in 2009, according to the latest figures from the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

State welcome centers were closed two days a week for three months in 2009, reducing figures by about 14.5 percent, the department said.

Total economic impact from the welcome centers fell from about $3 million in 2005 to $2 million in 2009.

Reservations made at the welcome centers fell more dramatically, from about 41,000 to 24,700 during the same period, something tourism officials attribute to mobile devices.

"That's changed by technology, where people have a cell phone in their pocket and more people with smart phones and tablets where they can work in real-time from anywhere to make reservations," said Marion Edmonds, department spokesman. "And the hospitality industry has gotten more sophisticated in providing access through websites.

"But there is still a pretty good number of people who depend on our travel counselors. People are still coming through and getting brochures and talking to counselors. The welcome centers are still providing that function and those numbers have not dropped much."

Fewer visitors used the Hilton Head welcome center, as well. Numbers dropped from 55,340 in 2008 to 50,485 last year, according to the chamber.

Chamber officials, though, say they expect those numbers to increase after a more visible and appealing welcome center is completed.

"Hospitality is still a key component of the travel experience. That hasn't changed," Clark said. "Welcoming our visitors with hospitality and serving as a starting point to the Hilton Head Island experience is part of that hospitality."

Clark said the new welcome center would be built more as a discovery center where travelers learn about the island's culture and history, walk around the marsh and book tickets for tours and events.

"The goal is not to build a welcome center of yesterday, but a welcome center for today's and the future traveler," Clark said. "Travelers still want information from a trusted local source. ... This will be a place to get information about the vacation they're about to experience and learn about the destination before they get going."

PLAN CONCERNS

The welcome center would be built in phases and feature a breezeway, courtyard, screened patio, pier and gazebo designed to provide more views of the marsh. The building would have a commercial kitchen and restrooms for outdoor events.

A bus stop, lagoon, playground, fountain and bike racks are planned, along with walking trails and sidewalks that could extend beyond the site.

The chamber would eliminate the curb cuts that serve the site and the neighboring Crazy Crab restaurant, create one access to both properties and extend the deceleration lane off William Hilton Parkway.

"Many do not notice the welcome center is here, and by the time you see the curb cut, you're slamming on the brakes," said Kevin Grenier, project architect with KRA Architecture and Design. "This will provide more safety and longer time for a driver to see the welcome center."

Design Review Board members were receptive to the conceptual plans. However, they questioned a proposal to build a center that resembles a historic farm house from the 1800s that has expanded through time as the family grows.

"That's not the modern vernacular of Hilton Head," said board member Todd Theodore.

Theodore, though, said he favors many of the plan's other concepts.

"What's there is horrendous, and this is an opportunity to put a new face on the property and be a gateway to the island," he said.

The chamber plans to bring updated conceptual designs to the board next month.