Much needed updates for the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina building, including the Elizabeth Wallace Theatre, pictured, would be covered by a portion of the proposed town referendum. The referendum, previously scheduled for a May 5 vote, has been postpon

The curtain has closed temporarily for the future of Hilton Head Island’s funding of the arts and cultural communities and its parks and recreation facilities.

The proposed $65 million, 25-year vision plan was scheduled for a referendum vote on May 5, but has been postponed until November 2021. The referendum designates $35 million for arts and culture and $30 million for parks and recreation.

The public wanted more details about how the money would be spent and voiced concerns about the referendum vote in May being rushed and premature. Mayor John McCann concurred.

“I remain convinced that this Quality of Life Referendum represents a tremendous opportunity to move the island forward in a significant way, but it has become clear that now is not the time,” McCann said in a statement. “While having the confidence that we could actually fund these projects would have been ideal, we will move forward to develop the level of detail that our citizens indicated they desire before being asked to vote.”

McCann said the referendum deals “primarily with us reinvesting in ourselves.”

As it stands now, the $35 million targeted for the arts and culture would benefit the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina ($25 million), the Coastal Discovery Museum ($5 million) and Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park ($5 million).

The $30 million of funding directed to parks and recreation would be for upgrading and modernizing aging existing facilities, not adding new structures and programs. Chaplin Community Park, Crossings Park, and the town-owned portion of Planter’s Row Golf Course are in the town’s crosshairs for improvements.

To date, no referendum plans have been approved nor any money invested. The town and its organizations will conduct further studies between now and 2021.

The Arts Center, mired in funding issues for quite some time, would be owned and operated by the University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB) in a partnership. Its 4.6-acre property would become an arts campus and four-year degree programs would be offered on-site in stage management, lighting and sound.

“A misperception is that the Arts Center will receive $25 million from the referendum,” said Jeffrey Reeves, president and CEO of the facility. “The acquisition of the Arts Center facility is only part of that amount. While a specific dollar amount for the Arts Center facility has not yet been decided, the intent is for USCB to take ownership of the current Arts Center facility, while taking over the responsibility of funding the annual maintenance and facility upkeep expenses going forward.

“At that time, it would also be the intent of the Arts Center to allocate a significant amount of the transaction proceeds to make the much needed updates, replacements and refurbishments to the existing facility on behalf of USCB and the town.”

USCB Chancellor Dr. Al Panu shared his enthusiasm about becoming part of the arts community on Hilton Head.

“I want to convey both our excitement and our appreciation for the wonderful relationship we have forged with the town and the community of Hilton Head Island,” he said. “We are delighted to have a campus on the island, and we are committed to being of service to all who live, work, study and visit here.”

He’s a strong believer in the concept of the arts enriching lives as part of educational development.

He singled out collaborations with the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, Hilton Head Dance Theater, Lean Ensemble Theater, Main Street Youth Theatre and the Southeastern Summer Theatre Institute.

“This partnership would allow USCB students to gain practical, professional experience from internships or apprenticeships while working with the existing Arts Center professional productions and programs,” Reeves said.

He clearly stated that the initial referendum only addresses the sale, improvement programs and development of the site.

“It is key to note that there will be no changes to the nonprofit Arts Center’s organization, mission or role in education, community outreach, or producing and presenting the performing arts in our current facility,” Reeves said.

“USCB already has experience with bringing higher education to our island with the successful establishment of their hospitality management degree program at their Hilton Head Island hospitality campus,” he said. “While there is much work to be done – and we are, again, early in this process – we are optimistic about the potential economic and functional benefits for all parties involved, as well as our greater island.”

Added Panu, “Any opportunity to add value – to expand our service role in the community – is a priority for us. Thus, we are excited about this prospective collaboration…. The arts enrich our lives and bring us together. And, they are a meaningful part of any educational experience.”

The referendum also includes the reinvention and creation of a Mitchelville cultural park to honor and celebrate the island’s diversity. Space would be allocated for educational forums, casual outdoor activities and weddings.

The hope would be that families and friends can enjoy and take pride in Mitchelville as a national project because of its status as the first freed slaves community in America in 1862. The late Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison honored the occasion by placing one of her “Bench by the Road” projects at Mitchelville.

Funding for the referendum projects would come from the 5-mill property tax increase, which became effective after Hurricane Matthew to replenish the town’s disaster recovery fund through 2022. After that, funds would be diverted to the arts and parks.

This is not a new tax. The 5-mill increase has required homeowners to pay an extra $20 on every $100,000 a home is worth since 2017.

The idea for the referendum was generated as a creative funding strategy that would improve the quality of life for island residents.

“If the referendum does not pass, the successful programming division of our organization will continue to be increasingly burdened with an aging but worthwhile community asset,” Reeves said. “A vibrant arts community benefits the economic, business and social aspects of an entire community; but those benefits require investment.”

Lowcountry resident Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer