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House slims promo funds; Chamber plans lighter budget for tourism

Grand Strand tourism promoters are tightening their belts after the S.C. House cut funding for a key marketing program.

The House passed the budget bill March 18 providing $6 million for the destination-specific marketing program, down from $10 million in the 2009-2010 budget. That means the Grand Strand - which normally claims half of the program's funding - will likely receive $2 million less than the previous budget year. The Senate is considering the budget, and Grand Strand tourism leaders have urged senators to keep that $6 million in the budget.

The lowered funding could mean fewer TV ads promoting the Grand Strand in markets with direct flights to Myrtle Beach, said Ryan Swaim, chairman of the chamber's marketing committee. Despite the cut, Grand Strand tourism promoters were glad to see tourism marketing get some funding in the tight budget year.

The state program gives $1 to a destination such as Myrtle Beach for every $2 in private funds spent to market that location out-of-state. The Myrtle Beach area generally collects the most through the program, followed by Charleston, Hilton Head Island and Columbia. Myrtle Beach's chamber puts up money collected from businesses to match the state funds.

The money is never guaranteed, as it must be voted into the state budget every year, Swaim said, and tourism competes for funding with other needs. Even the money that is budgeted isn't guaranteed to come through, because tax revenue is down statewide, he said, although the money has always come through in previous years.

In a tough budget year, garnering any money for the program is a resounding success, said Rep. Thad Viers of Myrtle Beach. The overall budget was down 20 percent from last year, he said.

The program encourages businesses to cooperate by pooling their money for theprivate dollars, Viers said.

The chamber has planned for its marketing budget to decline this year, said Swaim, the first decrease since 2007.

The marketing budget will likely decrease from $20 million to about $15 million, said Brad Dean, chamber president and chief executive. The budget decrease also accounts for an expected decline in funding from Myrtle Beach's 1 percent sales tax for tourism as the city diverts more of that tax revenue to property tax reduction and away from the chamber, Dean said. The tax took effect Aug. 1.

Swaim said that the decrease in funds would result in fewer TV ads promoting the Strand.

"It's expensive, and it's not always as cost-effective as online marketing, which still makes up the majority of what we do," he said.

The chamber focuses much of its TV marketing on areas with direct flights to Myrtle Beach and has dedicated more money to these efforts as more routes were added in recent years, Swaim said. Swaim and Dean said the chamber would decide where to cut after evaluating this year's efforts.

Dean joined other tourism officials in Columbia last week to present the program's benefits to the Senate budget committee. Even if the funding is less this year, it still represents progress for tourism, he said.

"It was just a few years ago that the tourism industry had to beg and plead for small investments," Dean said. "Yet here we are today in this economic climate with the state budget taking cuts. ... They obviously see this as part of the budget solution."

Dean and Viers said they were optimistic the $6 million would hold up as the Senate considers the bill during coming months.