As the Island Packet reported yesterday: Beaufort County Council members Mike Covert, Chris Hervochon and Brian Flewelling wrote Hilton Head Chamber president and CEO Bill Miles on Oct. 29, arguing that the public has a right to see how the Hilton Head chamber spends the more than $300,000 of county money included in its marketing budget. In fiscal year 2019, the chamber spent $3.3 million in public money for marketing, according to an audit published by Columbia-based accounting firm J.W. Hunt and Co.
Bill Miles, Hilton Head Chamber CEO, has repeatedly said the chamber is not a public agency but instead a private vendor for marketing services. He cites a 2018 South Carolina Supreme Court ruling that the chamber is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. In August 2018, Miles said showing municipalities more information about how the chamber spends tax dollars would give away the marketing organization’s “secret sauce.”
Mike Covert said the information is vital because it’s the county’s responsibility to tell the public how its tax money is being spent. “We’re not accusing anybody of anything, because we can’t see it,” he said. “If you’re not willing to give the answer out, or if you’re not willing to make it [accessible] to the common guy, what are you hiding?”
“It’s very simple. It’s definitely not an attack on the chamber — they serve an important purpose. But it doesn’t matter if it was them or Mickey Mouse, what was done was improper,” he said. “That’s why I sent the letter to the A.G.’s office.”
A year ago, the Hilton Head chamber denied a request by Hilton Head Island leaders for quarterly reports on how the chamber spends the $2 million in tax money it receives each year from the town. Now, the town is inviting other marketing groups to bid for the designated marketing organization contract, which previously automatically went to the chamber.
REASONS THE MYRTLE BEACH CHAMBER SHOULD BE NEXT
Betraying public trust
The “secret sauce” defense is the very same legal defense the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber made to MyrtleBeachSC news, when we asked to see the not-for-profit’s eight years of running tax-payer purchased web stats. This FOIA request was made just before Myrtle Beach City Council took a critical vote to extend the TDF ordinance in 2018.
Mayor Bethune ran a campaign for mayor in 2017, promising to “clean up” the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce’s [MBACC] brand name. However, after only a few months in office, Bethune refused to examine the web stats. She, and Myrtle Beach City Council, voted unanimously to extend the tax without even taking a cursory look at MBACC’s past website performance.
Taxpayers do care about webstats
MBACC C.E.O., Brad Dean, then infamously spoke in the well of Myrtle Beach City Council stating, “No one cares about [long running] webstats.”
These long running webstats, however, provide information as to who is visiting the VisitMyrtleBeach.com website, their income, town they live in, and in which town they choose to vacation.
ACCOUNTING FOR ATAX DOLLARS
The towns of Surfside Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Horry County Council collectively send millions in tax dollars to the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
A BRAND IN DECLINE
Yet the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce promotes all Grand Strand tourism under the umbrella of VISITMYRTLEBEACH.com.
As we reported this week, the towns of Surfside Beach, Garden City Beach, North Myrtle Beach, and Carolina Forest do not want to be identified as Myrtle Beach.
As a prominent Surfside Beach businessman states above, “We [Surfside Beach] don’t want to be compared to Myrtle Beach guys. Myrtle Beach has been declining in popularity. “
It is a sentiment that runs up and down the coast. No city wants to be considered Myrtle Beach. Yet MBACC leads with that city’s brand name in all of its promotions.
Meanwhile, MBACC refuses to give Horry County, Surfside Beach, and North Myrtle Beach anything more than cursory accounting as to how it financially performs. No one really knows how many visit the area. No one knows exactly which (of the other town) destinations tourists prefer most.
What we do know is that Myrtle Beach is the least popular brand along the coast. MyrtleBeachSC news continually documents results that highlight this fact.
Questions remain as to whether the name Myrtle Beach hurts the other town’s brand names. All of the Grand Strand is currently being promoted as the Myrtle Beach Area. Other towns are now openly questioning if such marketing is affecting revpar for room nights in those more upscale towns.
The City of Myrtle Beach has experienced 3 successive down years of tourism, despite MBACC collecting over $50 million annually in tax gifts to promote the town and area.
No one argues that the downtown area of Myrtle Beach is in decline. Leadership in the town is also in denial, promising that Federally funded, tax subsidized investments will turn the town around.
The City of Myrtle Beach has also been designated South Carolina’s dirtiest beach. This was reported by both MyrtleBeachSC News and the Charleston Post and Courier in July 2019.
County leaders can quickly point to mismanagement as it relates to the Market Common’s missing $20 million. The Horry County School district claims those funds were supposed to be set aside for a school. This has lead to a court battle between the city and Horry County Schools. The City of Myrtle Beach continues to hide the facts on what happened to the monies.
The $60 million Hospitality Fee dispute with Horry County is still in question as the City of Myrtle Beach demands all negotiations remain a “secret”.
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
Open discussions concerning tax funding for MBACC are already in process among municipalities county-wide.
Questions are being asked if Horry County, North Myrtle Beach, and Surfside Beach should follow Hilton Head’s lead and invite others into a bidding process for promoting Horry County travel.
Some are even suggesting a new Grand Strand brand name be created, leaving the unruly City of Myrtle Beach out of the marketing mix altogether.
For now, leaders are simply doing what they can to data gather on the best path forward.
MBACC FOIA REQUEST
From: Myrtle Beach SC News
Date: Wed, Feb 14, 2018 at 6:10 PM
Subject: MBACC FOIA REQUEST – WEBSITE DATA 2009 -17
To: “firstname.lastname@example.org” <email@example.com>, Alan Clemmons <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cc: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, Philip Render <email@example.com>, “firstname.lastname@example.org” <email@example.com>, Mary Jeffcoat <firstname.lastname@example.org>, email@example.com, “firstname.lastname@example.org” <email@example.com>, John Pedersen <firstname.lastname@example.org>
MyrtleBeachSC.com media would like a FOIA of the VisitMyrtleBeach.com archived website data from 2009 through 2017. It is our understanding that only tax payer dollars were used in driving these website visitors to VisitMyrtleBeach.com per the information you have put online.
- Specifically all Google Analytics data on the website from 2009 – 2017
- All data related to the Pay Per Click revenue generator charged to individual clients so as to know what hotels were most clicked out from VisitMyrtleBeach.com.
- Total visitors by hotel name clicked out for the dates from 2009 to 2017.
- All top hotels by order of most clicked out from VisitMyrtleBeach.com for the years 2009-2017.
- Any demo-graphical statistics the MBACC has kept on ages of website visitors, income of website visitors or other profile information from the WEBSITE HISTORY BY VISITORS so as to know what clientele is responding to our tax payer purchased ads produced.
- Any and all statistical data produced by all VisitMyrtleBeach.com website analytics.
- Top pages visited on the website for the dates in question.
This data was paid for by the taxpayers of America, and, as such, is subject to FOIA (by law) despite MBACC’s claims in the past and the AMICUS brief recetly filed with the S.C. Supreme Court.
Please provide digital copies at your earliest. Residents are told an extension vote on the TDF is eminent and deserve to know the results produced by the previous $200 million in tax dollars spent to date before this vote is made by a majority of Myrtle Beach City Council.
CHAMBER ATTORNEY’S REPLY TO ONGOING REQUESTS