Public-private agreements could bring Earth-friendly parks to Okatie area

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Public-private agreements could bring Earth-friendly parks to Okatie area

By ANNE CHRISTNOVICH
achristnovich@islandpacket.com
Published Tuesday, March 20, 2012   |  692 Words  |  

A partnership between a nonprofit group and Beaufort County could bring a second zip line company to the area.

Direct Instructional Support Systems is negotiating to bring the zip line tour and walking and biking trails to the Okatie Regional Park, which the county purchased between 2000 and 2004 through its Rural and Critical Lands Program.

The Ohio-based organization hopes to start construction soon and could complete it within months. Direct Instruction Support would offer 2 1/2-hour group tours through the tree canopies.

Gary Moore, the group's chief executive officer, said the park hasn't been designed yet, but that it will be "one of the most educational and interpretive tours" in the Lowcountry.

"We firmly believe Hilton Head Island and the Beaufort County area needs to reinvent itself in terms bringing new activities recreationally to the area," he said at a County Financial Committee on Monday.

Under a proposed contract discussed at the meeting, Moore's company would invest about $441,000 to build the zip line, a welcome center and bathrooms. It also would pay the county to rent the land and for daily operations.

Beaufort County, in turn, would use $175,000 donated to the county's Rural and Critical Lands Program for water lines, a gate, parking lot, picnic pavilion and walking and biking trails. The gift was earmarked for Okatie Regional Park and can't be used for any other project, County Planner Tony Criscitiello said. The Rural and Critical Lands Program buys or receives donations of land important to preserving the area's ecosystems.

Visitors would be charged for the zip line tours, but the trails would be free and open to the public, Criscitiello said.

The zip line would take visitors from one platform to another in the park, and at each stop a guide would explain the natural surroundings.

The county also would be responsible for getting permits for the park, which is located within the town of Bluffton, according to the contract.

The neighborhoods closest to the park are Sun City Hilton Head, Island West and Berkeley Hall. Criscitiello said he met with residents of those areas and received "very, very favorable reactions."

The committee voted unanimously to allow county staff and Moore's organization to negotiate a contract, which must be approved by Council.

Beaufort County wouldn't need money from its general fund for building or operating the park and might get about $50,000 in revenue each year from the company, according to a draft of the contract.

"I'm excited about it for several reasons," committee member Paul Sommerville said. "We have a lot of land that we've taken over through Rural and Critical Lands that we'll have to do something with, and there's no way we can finance that ... the monies aren't there and won't ever be there."

A master plan for the Okatie Regional Park was approved in 2005, but funding for the proposed hiking, biking, fishing and camping amenities has been hard to come by.

"We've never been able to crack the code in terms of opening, operating and maintaining all these parks," Criscitiello said. "This is an opportunity to take the concept of a public-private partnership and actually apply it to see how it works."

The area's first zip line program is ready to open at the Broad Creek Marina on Hilton Head Island, owner Roger Freedman said. A grand opening is set for April 15. The facility has eight zip lines, four towers and three "sky bridges", Freedman said.

Freedman hadn't heard of plans for the Okatie Regional Park but wasn't worried about another zip line coming to the area.

"I think we have one of the greatest locations you can possibly have," he said, "but it's always possible to have another business like it."

Follow Anne Christnovich on Twitter at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.

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Lack of money continues to delay Okatie Nature Park, Jan. 24, 2009