HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SC — A few years ago, as Hilton Head Island’s annual PGA Tour event teetered without a title sponsor, Sea Pines Resort’s staff was busy planning improvements that would appeal to property owners and resort guests — and secure its crown jewel.
There was just one big problem: There was no money to do the work.
“We were sitting around making plans for improvements, but that’s as far as we could take it,” said Cary Corbitt, the resort’s vice president of sports and operations.
“Sea Pines always struggled with cash flow,” added Steve Birdwell, resort president. “That’s why the past seven, eight years have been wonderful.”
An infusion of cash followed The RiverStone Group’s 2005 purchase of the Hilton Head Island resort, which was sold, in part, because the former owner lacked money to update its amenities. Virginia-based RiverStone has spent nearly $30 million on resort improvements in the past five years.
Plans call for another $30 million to $50 million to be spent in the next few years for more upgrades, Birdwell said.
Sea Pines officials say the improvements are part of an islandwide resurgence that will help ensure this week’s RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing stays put and the island remains a hot spot for tourists. All eyes will be on Sea Pines this week, as the tournament will be played before an expected crowd of about 100,000 and as thousands more watch on CBS and The Golf Channel.
The upgrades are essential to the island’s future, say area officials. The Heritage, which has an $80 million-a-year economic impact, lost its sponsor, Verizon, in 2010, and a frantic two-year search was launched to find a replacement and save the annual PGA Tour stop, which has been played on the island since 1969.
In 2011, the Royal Bank of Canada inked a five-year contract as lead sponsor. At the same time, Sea Pines signed a five-year contract to remain the tournament’s home.
Since then, Sea Pines has shifted into high gear, improving its facilities and golf courses.
The improvements make it more likely the tournament’s long history in Sea Pines will continue for the foreseeable future, according to Heritage tournament director Steve Wilmot.
“It’s tremendous. Many people don’t realize the commitment the resort has made,” said Wilmot, who lives in Sea Pines.
He added that the upgrades come about a year to 18 months before the tournament is set to begin negotiations to renew its title-sponsor contract with RBC and its contract with Sea Pines for the use of Harbour Town.
“Sponsors will see the commitment the resort is making, and it will make a difference,” Wilmot said. “Sea Pines is truly stepping up.”
Others are making big investments, too, Wilmot notes.
Redevelopment around the island ensures Hilton Head remains the sort of place the PGA Tour wants to conduct a tournament. As examples, Wilmot pointed to ongoing redevelopment of the former Mall at Shelter Cove, planned improvements to Coligny by the town, and renovations at The Beach House, The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa, Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island, Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa, and the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort.
“There is definitely a renaissance happening on Hilton Head Island,” said Charlie Clark, spokeswoman for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
Clark attributes the work to an improving economy and a realization that the island’s amenities were beginning to look dated.
“There is a finite amount of land on the island,” she said. “To keep our market fresh, we have to reinvest in the product. Everyone is onboard with doing that.”
What’s new and improving
While bulldozers are at work across the island, all eyes will be on Sea Pines this week, as the tournament will be played before an expected crowd of about 100,000 and as thousands more watch on CBS and The Golf Channel.
Planned and ongoing work includes:
• Rebuilding the clubhouse at the Pete Dye-designed Harbour Town Golf Links, where the tournament is played. If plans are approved by resort and town officials, the new club will include locker rooms on the first floor that members and guests will use throughout the year, and a larger locker room on the second floor for the PGA Tour pros that will serve as a special-events room other times of the year. The clubhouse also will feature an expanded pro shop, a pub and grill, and ballroom where tournament sponsors can entertain.
“We want RBC to have the spaces they need to operate. We want the players to have their needs met,” Birdwell said, adding that demolition could begin after the 2014 RBC Heritage if the project wins approval.
• A new $15 million Plantation Golf Club that serves the Ocean Course and Pete Dye-designed Heron Point course. The old clubhouse has been torn down, and a new one is scheduled for completion in 2014.
• A new $10 million Beach Club with an indoor restaurant and bar; an open-air beach bar; second-floor space for private receptions and parties; retail and office space; and expanded restrooms, showers and changing rooms. The club will replace the current oceanside club built more than 40 years ago. Work is scheduled to begin this fall and will be completed before year’s end.
Still on the wish list
About $2 million in room and pool improvements at the resort’s The Inn at Harbour Town, a boutique hotel that won a 2012 Forbes Four-Star Award, are completed. It’s one of only three properties in South Carolina with the rating.
Long term, Sea Pines would like to add 40 to 50 rooms to the 60-room inn, Birdwell said.
“RBC and Boeing wished we had more rooms. We don’t have the ability today; it’s something we’d like to do in the future,” he said.
The challenge, according to Birdwell and Corbitt, is to make the additions while maintaining the inn’s boutique feel and personal service.
Other long-range plans for the resort include a new racquet club and a new pool at Harbour Town.
And the resort is keeping its fingers crossed that the dredging of the Harbour Town Yacht Basin will soon be approved by state and federal regulators, allowing bigger boats to access Harbour Town and clear the way for improvements to surrounding retail space.
“The (Heritage) sponsors would like to do more entertaining on boats and yachts, and we’re limited right now,” Birdwell said. “But I’m pretty confident we will get the permits soon and move forward.”