Like most cities, Charleston's eyes are sometimes bigger than its budget. The latest whosits and whatsits are just too enticing — and sometimes they're a necessity. In the past few years, the city has relied on enterprise projects to fill in the shortfall — $2 million in 2007 and $1.75 million last year. Most of the eight projects actually don't make money, but two — parking fees and table rentals at the Market — have more than paid for the rest, keeping the city from having to dip too deeply into reserve accounts or, more importantly, increase taxes.
But, as it happens in any good Star Trek movie, the city's enterprises are getting a little banged up this year. Only $356,000 is expected to come from these programs in 2009, forcing a more than $2 million dive into city savings accounts.
The cities garages and the Market could provide more money to the annual budget, but first they have to pay for the handful of other enterprise projects. Some come close to covering their costs, while others wallow deep in the red year after year. Collectively, these projects are projected to drain $900,000 from the city's budget in 2009 — at a time when every dollar counts.
But supporters would argue these tourism investments play a pivotal role in maintaining Charleston's image as a vacation destination. Tourism brings $3 billion and 43.3 million visitors to the region every year.
Here's a look at the winners and losers of the enterprise program, and the reasons for the budget crunch.
Parking: It's hard to complain about a project expected to provide $1.1 million to city coffers in the next year — except that figure is off about a million dollars from last year. The city's various parking facilities spread across the peninsula's tourism district have been the top dog of the enterprise projects, but the city is bracing for a sharp drop in tourists, just in case, says Steve Bedard, the city's chief financial officer.
"We're at the micro level trying to predict what the impact is going to be," he says.
The city has also seen costs for maintenance and operation jump by more than 55 percent at the Cumberland Street garage. The city is asking Charleston County, which shares the garage, for a reason for the steep increase, Bedard says.
"We aren't seeing that in our garages," he says.
City Market: Tired of the Market's bad rap as a tourist trap, the city ditched long-time operators and hired a fresh management team of local business owners with a stake in the market's success — hotel, restaurant, and retail proprietors Hank Holliday and Steve Varn. The goal is to turn the market into a regional shopping destination that doesn't turn off locals and those tourists who have been properly warned.
Brand new visions come with brand new price tags, and the revenue from the Market is expected to drop by 75 percent as the city launches ambitious improvement plans. Some of the work includes immediate needs like cleaning and upkeep, while the rest involves laying the groundwork for a strategic plan the city can use for long-term changes like improving restrooms and parking and potentially expanding the market.
Some of the upgrades can be filed under short-term costs, so revenue from the new and improved market could be better than ever once the work is done and the scars heal from the face lift.
The Old Slave Mart Museum: A drain on the city budget in its formative years, the museum is expected to turn a small profit this year, with both sales and ticket admission outpacing projections in 2008.
"It's been a tremendous success," Bedard says. "There's been a lot of interest, and the tour companies have incorporated the museum into their tours."
Joe Riley Jr. Ballpark: The home of the Charleston Riverdogs continues to be a drain on the city's bottom line. It's expected to cost the city $83,000 more than it brings in next year, thanks in part to some environmentally-sensitive, energy-saving upgrades.
Angel Oak: Gift shop sales provide much of the money needed to maintain and operate the historic Johns Island landmark, but the city will have to pull $42,753 from elsewhere in the budget to cover its costs. Interestingly, the city only receives about $6,000 a year in contributions toward the preservation of the site.
Gaillard Municipal Auditorium: The Gaillard is the largest money pit for the city, costing nearly $700,000 over what it brings in through rental and box office collections. Bedard says the facility's design is dated, but that it is well-maintained. He notes that there are few public auditoriums that turn a profit. The Gaillard hosts a number of events in the exhibit hall, he says, and dozens of shows during events like the Spoleto Festival USA.
Charleston Visitors Center: For the last two years, the visitors center has largely paid for itself, but a drop in ticket sales and gift shop revenue — without a corresponding cut in expenses — is leaving a $40,000 hole in the center's nearly $950,000 budget.
Municipal Golf Course: This recreational opportunity on James Island covers most of its expenses through admissions and merchandise sales (including range balls), but the 2009 budget does suggest a slight dip in sales, requiring $7,000 in additional city cash to balance the budget.