Does Myrtle Beach need a new $5.4 million, city-built amphitheater? No, not really.
Is it better than repaying the state $7 million in grant money, plus interest? Absolutely.
Now if we can just convince S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis that the amphitheater – or “outdoor entertainment complex,” as the city prefers – is really a “national and international convention and trade show center.”
There’s the rub.
Back in 2005, flush with real estate dollars and a booming economy, the city conceived of a grand $85 million international convention center, part of a three-pronged strategy to boost tourism (the others being I-73 and a new airport). City leaders, backed by local legislators, convinced the state to pony up a $7 million grant to get the project going. That money went to buy the land for the vaunted expansion, which subsequently fizzled in the recession and real estate meltdown that followed.
But the state didn’t offer its money without strings attached. Part of the deal was that the city must offer proof to the state treasurer that it either began the expansion within five years or finished within 10 years. Obviously, the first deadline has already passed, without any construction. The next is quickly approaching. And that’s the problem for city leaders, who naturally don’t have any desire to return the $7 million grant.
Hence Plan B: a $5.4 million amphitheater project that leaders are crossing their fingers will fill the requirement of an expanded international convention center. As long as Loftis signs off on it, the city will be the proud owner of an entertainment space nobody envisioned a few years ago.
Don’t misunderstand; the amphitheater isn’t necessarily a bad idea. In fact, it could be a good addition for the city, bringing in new events, revitalizing old ones and boosting tourism. Local businesses could see new customers and local residents could have a new entertainment option. Those are all good outcomes.
According to the financial plans put forth so far, the site could even turn a small profit once it’s built. But that’s in a perfect world where everything goes according to plan. And that’s not likely. If a Myrtle Beach amphitheater were a great investment, a private group would likely have built it already. As it is, city spokesman Mark Kruea said there’s every expectation that the facility would have to be supported by the city for the foreseeable future.
But the fact that it could be built without raising new taxes is an important point in its favor. This is just the type of capital project (like the boardwalk) that the tourism promotion tax was meant to support. City budgets show that the tax is expected to generate about $1.3 million a year for such capital projects for the next few years, a valuable source of funding. If all goes according to plan, construction could begin as early as next year. Work would need to proceed quickly to meet the 2015 grant deadline.
In the meantime, city leaders and legislators should begin work behind the scenes convincing the state that this project fulfills our obligations. Nobody wants to be stuck with a $7 million bill and nothing to show for it but empty land. Loftis will be in town later this month to speak at a local political meeting. There’s a good place to start.