Why do Horry County agencies spend thousands, travel far for their budget retreats?

Lake Moultrie is the site of Santee Cooper’s Wampee conference center
Lake Moultrie is the site of Santee Cooper’s Wampee conference center

When local government officials in Horry County are taking an in-depth look at their budgets, they’ll often travel about 90 miles southwest to Pinopolis.

That’s the site of the Wampee conference center, a high-end meeting complex on a sprawling, centuries-old plantation owned by Santee Cooper.

Most government agencies in the county have held budget retreats there within the last five years, and some continue to do so annually.

Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said they make the conference center available to state, municipal and county agencies for budget retreats, conferences and training, and everybody pays the same rate — $60 per night lodging and $7-$20 per meal.

The rates are likely lower than other event hosting venues, Gore said, because Santee Cooper is a nonprofit, though lodging availability is limited.

That limited availability is key to the affordability of the trip, as overflow attendees will have to find another, likely more expensive, lodging option nearby.

North Myrtle Beach and Conway have held their budget retreats at Wampee almost every year for the past five years — North Myrtle Beach went elsewhere in 2017 — and spent an average of about $2,500 per year.

Myrtle Beach last held its annual retreat at Wampee in 2016, when it spent $10,500. Receipts from the trip show that about half the cost stemmed from the nearby Holiday Inn Express for about $190 per person.

Cost has been a determining factor for agencies that have decided to move their retreat location, including Horry County. County council recently voted to hold its 2019 spring retreat in the council conference room instead of Wampee.

The county spent $5,247 when it last held the retreat at Wampee in 2017, according to county records.

“This is a perfect example of wasting taxpayer dollars, especially when we have so many pressing needs,” council member Tyler Servant said when making the motion to move the retreat. “And we can do it for free right here in Horry County in Conway.”

Cost also was a factor for Myrtle Beach, according to City Council Member Mary Jeffcoat.

The city moved its budget retreat from Wampee to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in 2017, but after spending more than $7,000 at the city-owned facility, it moved again in 2018 to Magnolia’s, where it spent less than $2,000.

City Council Member Mike Chestnut said the biggest factor in moving the retreat back to Myrtle Beach was to make it more accessible to the public.

Jeffcoat said that sensitivity to transparency is more about optics than reality since only a couple members of the public showed up last year.

“Not many want to come sit through two-and-a-half days on budget talks,” she said.

Having the retreat locally does make it easier on department heads, Jeffcoat noted, because they might only need to talk to council about a single topic, but if they’re in Pinopolis, they’d have to be there the whole time.

“The downside is it’s easy to sneak out,” she said.

North Myrtle Beach City Council Member Nikki Fontana said the lack of distractions is what makes Wampee advantageous.

“Everybody is focused, and we get the work done that we need to get done,” she said.

Fontana said she enjoys the scenery on the plantation, but she wouldn’t care if they moved the retreat as long as it’s still in a place council and staff can remain focused.

North Myrtle Beach held its 2017 retreat at Wild Dunes Resort and spent nearly $8,000. City spokesman Pat Dowling said they had booked Wampee, but found out at the last minute that their reservation was not on the books.

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Investigative project reporter David Weissman joined The Sun News after three years working at The York Dispatch in Pennsylvania, where he earned awards for his investigative reports on topics including health, business, politics and education.