Residents have waited decades for a $500 million container port to be built on the Savannah River, and a retail complex requiring state incentives could have meant 2,500 jobs but was scuttled by lawmakers.
Now, local officials are pinning their hopes on a proposal for an upscale resort, shopping and entertainment complex that could create 4,000 jobs.
“We’ve been shooting at the hoop for a long time and we’re still hoping to score,” said Bronco Bostick, who has been mayor of Hardeeville for four years and on the town council for 16.
The challenge is that the complex proposed for the Hilton Head Lakes development about two miles off Interstate 95 will include a casino – something developers say is crucial for its success but also might be a roadblock to getting approval from Gov. Nikki Haley.
Such approval is needed under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which would govern the operation. The casino would be operated by the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, which would own the casino land, said Joe Brinn, the managing partner for the development.
The plans call for a four-star hotel with an upscale indoor shopping arcade, golf and a convention center that can seat 2,000.
The casino “is the engine that makes the train run. It’s the driving force,” Brinn said.
According to an analysis put together for the developers, the impact of the resort would be $270 million annually.
Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey has said there are better ways to bring jobs than a casino.
“The governor has no intention of taking any action that would enable casino gambling,” he said.
Brinn hopes Haley will see it differently when developers lay out their plan, which he said will create jobs with no need for state money. They hope to meet with her shortly.
“She ran on a platform of creating jobs, and this is a tremendous job generator,” he said.
More than 20 percent of Jasper County residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Analysts estimate the resort will draw more than 4 million visitors a year stopping off busy Interstate 95 at a location about midway between New York and Miami.
Just more than half that number visit nearby Hilton Head Island each year.
The location is ideal, Brinn said, with historic Savannah just over the river and the beaches of Hilton Head a short drive away. He said the resort could create a tourism hub in the same way that BMW created an automotive hub in upstate South Carolina and the Boeing plant is creating one in North Charleston.
The mayor is not concerned about the gambling issue in his community.
“I don’t think people will be gambling any more than they have been gambling with Cash Three and Cash Four and Powerball,” Bostick said. “If they really want to gamble they are still going to go to North Carolina, Florida and Atlantic City.”