Heritage officials scrambling to find new sources of funding

HILTON HEAD - With the search on to find a new title sponsor after the 2010 tournament, Verizon Heritage officials hope the local community will help shoulder the burden during a lean economy.

However, it's not clear just how wide those shoulders are.

"They've got 4,600 businesses in Houston," said tournament director Steve Wilmot, referring to the host city of the Shell Houston Open. "I think we have 46."

Hilton Head Island is the smallest media market on the PGA Tour, and Wilmot said he already expected the 2010 tournament to be even more difficult than 2009, when the recession kept organizers from selling as many badges and sponsorships as usual.

On Tuesday, the Heritage and the PGA Tour announced Verizon would not extend its title sponsorship beyond 2010. Wilmot and tour officials are confident they'll find a replacement in time for 2011, but he said that search likely would be easier and shorter if the community shows its support.

To what extent can the community meet that challenge?

Elected officials and business leaders say it's too early to tell.

When the Heritage Classic Foundation, which runs the tournament, needed a title sponsor before the 2003 event, the town of Hilton Head Island agreed to help for one year by increasing its hospitality tax on prepared food and beverages from 1 percent to 2 percent. That turned out to be unnecessary after tournament organizers signed a deal with MCI about six weeks before that year's tournament.

But town officials couldn't do that again if they wanted to, according to Mayor Tom Peeples. The town has since increased its hospitality tax to the maximum 2 percent allowed by state law and allocated that money.

"The short answer is, we really don't have any source of money," Peeples said.

Public money is not the tournament's first choice of funding, anyway, say Wilmot and Peeples, who is on the Heritage Classic Foundation board.

Peeples urged businesses and residents to focus on making the 2010 tournament a showcase to attract potential new sponsors.

"I think we need to make this the best that we've ever had," Peeples said. "We want them to see what we are at our best."

If the island puts on a good show next year, Peeples is confident the tournament can find a new sponsor, perhaps with the help of the island's many retirees with connections to major corporations.

"We're going to get it done," Peeples said. "We've got to."

Community support has buoyed the tournament more than once.

In addition to the town's offer of tax dollars in 2002-03, private investments helped keep the event afloat when the Sea Pines Company's bankruptcy threatened the tournament's very existence between 1986 and 1987.

That's when a group of 10 local business leaders stepped forward, pledging $100,000 each to secure a line of credit. That money was to ensure the tournament's purse would be paid should the event's revenues falter, which, as it turns out, they did not, said Jim Coleman, then president of the Melrose Co. and one of the pledgers.

That tumult gave birth to the Heritage Classic Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs the tournament and that has dispersed nearly $20 million of its proceeds to charities and grant recipients in South Carolina and Georgia.

Bill Miles, president and CEO of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks the local business community can rise to the occasion this time around, too, although it is not likely to produce a title sponsor.

"Every dollar counts," said Miles, who also is on the Heritage Classic Foundation board.

Board chairman Simon Fraser also believes the community will come through, but he said he is not unrealistic about the recession's effect on local businesses.