COLUMBIA, SC — Anyone who lives outside the city limits of Camden is a tourist, even if theyre just three minutes away.
Thats the crux of the citys response to a citizen lawsuit trying to halt construction of a downtown sports complex using hospitality-tax revenues.
The ruling by Circuit Judge Alison Lee on Camdens use of tourist-tax money could impact how S.C. cities and counties use proceeds from the tax, collected on restaurant meals in 14 of the states 46 counties. Under state law, the proceeds must be used to attract tourists.
During a four-hour trial Thursday, Camden city manager Kevin Bronson said a study commissioned by the YMCA found that basketball clinics, soccer and lacrosse tournaments would bring in hundreds of tourists some of them people who live three to 15 minutes away, in Kershaw County.
Architects have designed a gym with space reserved for an indoor pool and two multi-use playing fields for soccer and lacrosse.
Work ground to a halt after a group calling itself Citizens for Responsible Government sued in January.
Bronson said from the beginning, the city wanted to use hospitality tax money for the complex and that the tourism component was going to be very critical to anything we designed. It was contracting with the Y as manager.
Tommy Lydon, representing Citizens for Responsible Government, said from the beginning the city planned a sports complex for locals a use that he said does not qualify for hospitality-tax revenues. He tried to demonstrate that only after the city was challenged did it begin referring to the complex as a regional recreation facility.
Lydon spent much of the four-hour session dredging up city documents and emails referring to the complex as a gym. In one memo, Bronson characterized it as comparable to an upscale Golds Gym, but said he was using someone elses description.
Lydon asked Bronson to read aloud from a dozen documents about the project, often following up with a question like, Does it say anything about promoting tourism or generating tourism?
Camdens lawyer, Danny Crowe, said the city has the authority to build the center using hospitality taxes.
In a 2010 amendment to the hospitality-tax law, the General Assembly defined tourist, he said: Anyone who doesnt live in the city. In the case of a county project, a tourist would be anyone who doesnt live in the immediate area of the project.
And the law does not address what proportion of users must be tourists for a project to be considered tourism-related, Crowe said.
Bronson, wholl be taking a job in Rock Hill after the first of the year, was the only witness for the city.
Herbert Farber, founder of the citizens group, was the only witness for the plaintiffs. About 20 people watched the proceedings.
Farber, a retired investor, said his group objected to the city devoting its hospitality-tax funds to the project when it wouldnt bring in tourists. There are better uses for the money, he said.
The arguments came on the eve of Camdens municipal election, with Mayor Jeffrey Graham and two council members up for re-election Tuesday. Also on the ballot in Camden is an advisory referendum, asking voters if they want the city to continue with plans to build the recreation facility.
Lee asked both sides for proposed orders by Nov. 9, saying she would issue a decision as quickly as she could afterward.
The 2-percent tax on restaurant meals is a widely used revenue source for S.C. cities and counties.
Douglas OFlaherty, director of operations for the S.C. Hospitality Association now the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association said if the plantiffs prevail, cities would be more cautious about how they use hospitality-tax funds.
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641