TCL develops a recipe to save 'an industry in crisis'

Gwyneth J. Saunders


TCL develops a recipe to save 'an industry in crisis'

A rendering of the public restaurant portion of the proposed culinary institute at TCL. ILLUSTRATION COURTESY TCL

Layers of flavor make for a rich stew, but a shortage of ingredients makes for a very thin soup.

That could easily describe the current condition of much of Beaufort County's culinary and hospitality industry where jobs go begging for qualified - or even less-than-qualified - employees to staff the area's 500-plus restaurants.

The Technical College of the Lowcountry has spent the past two years cooking up a plan that will boost the number of culinarians and add a tasty attraction to the Lowcountry's reputation for food and fun.

What the college proposes is a 26,000 sq. ft. culinary institute, ideally located in the Buckwalter Place Commerce Park, the Multi-County Business/Industrial Park (MCIP). The lower cost of construction, the availability of land, the proximity to ready-made customers and the central location for future students made the site attractive to planners.

The primary challenge is finding out who will fund it and with how much.

The cost for construction at the "shovel-ready" location would be $7.8 million. With the addition of equipment, furniture, small kitchenwares, purchase of the land and the hiring of a culinary education specialty consultant, the total is nearly $11.5 million.

The college will raise an additional $2.5 million through in-kind donations including funding and equipment from individuals and corporations.

At the Aug. 7 Beaufort County Council Finance Meeting, chaired by county Vice Chairman Jerry Stewart, committee members, with the exception of Brian Flewelling, supported the project to the tune of about $5 million funded through the MCIP.

Flewelling, who represents District 5 (representing Okatie, Burton and Shell Point), said the municipalities that had the most to gain - Hilton Head Island and Bluffton - should be the ones that provide the bulk of the funding.

"They'll acquire the bulk of accommodations taxes. Specifically the municipality that this thing is going to be sitting in - the town of Bluffton," Flewelling said. "They're the ones who will see the most immediate benefit."

County and municipality taxes paid by the properties within the MCIP are set aside for economic development purposes. TCL officials believe the culinary institute would resolve the county's industry employment woes and act as a tourism attraction.

"Local surveys bear that out for us. USCB's Lowcountry Research and Tourism Institute reported 80 percent say the dining experience is very important to the reason why they come here," said Mary Lee Carns, TCL's vice president for advancement and external relations. "For an industry that we depend on for our roads and our sewers and all of that because of that tax revenue, we should be very concerned about not disappointing our visitors."

Culinary institutes are often considered an asset to tourism since they traditionally operate a student-run restaurant open to the public.

The week before the finance committee meeting, Carns addressed a gathering at TCL of Town of Bluffton and county officials, several members of the governor-appointed TCL Commission, chefs, restaurant owners, resort managers and chamber of commerce leaders at TCL as well as the county's finance committee.

"Everyone in this room is a stakeholder," she said. "This whole room should be willing to engage in candid discussion about the culinary institute, because the industry is our primary source of tax revenue. It supports the quality of life for everyone in this room. It is an industry in crisis."

TCL President Richard Gough said that if everything were to fall into place as the college hoped, permitting would begin mid-September.

The culinary institute would turn out its first one-year certificate and two-year degree graduates in four to five years, eventually producing up to 200 culinary industry employees per year.

A severe lack of trained and employable workers has hampered the production in many of the county's 500-plus restaurants, which are not the only destinations for qualified culinarians. Hospitals, senior citizen residences, private chefs, public schools and grocery chains hire culinary school graduates.

"Our amenities are suffering. And we are not delivering the quality of service and care to our visitors that we should," said Clayton Rollison, chef-owner of the Lucky Rooster on Hilton Head. "These are our potential people who come in and buy real estate. They also are 50 percent of the hotel tax dollars that go into both Bluffton's and Hilton Head's general funds."

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.