June 3, 2023

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

State Goes Big in TV Buy for PGA Championship

057a8495b98e2e428aa03e597ab7f397S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell made a big announcement prior to the 2012 PGA Championship held last week in the backyard of Harrell’s district, which includes part of Charleston County.

The prestigious golf tournament took place Thursday through Sunday at the luxurious Kiawah Island Golf Resort’s Ocean Course, along the coast just south of Charleston.

Landing the PGA Championship was, no doubt, a serious coup for the area.

It also presented an opportunity for Harrell to tout his hometown locale – and announce a massive, state-funded TV advertising campaign promoting South Carolina as an international tourism destination.

Striding to a podium, Harrell proclaimed the marketing offensive during what was described in one media report as a “government relations luncheon” hosted by the PGA of America last Tuesday.

The ad blitz consisted of a TV spot being broadcast in some 120 countries on each day of the four-day PGA Championship.

The countries included China, India, Germany, Italy and Japan, according to Marion Edmonds, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT). “It’ll be seen in a huge number of countries,” Edmonds said Friday.

Responding to questions by email afterward, Edmonds said of the ad campaign, “It uses our already existing golf TV ad, so no new spot had to be created. The cost is part of our state marketing budget.”

Asked for details about the government relations luncheon hosted by the PGA of America, Edmonds said Friday he had been on the phone with Duane Parrish, director of the PRT agency, and was “pretty sure” that Parrish attended the luncheon.

Edmonds did not provide any additional details about the event.

A phone message Friday and an email Monday to Una Jones, a media relations specialist with the PGA of America, generated no responses.

Harrell’s communications director, Greg Foster, also did not respond to an email and two phone messages seeking more information about the PGA of America luncheon for government relations officials.

Someone answering the phone in Foster’s office at about 2 p.m. Friday said “yes, sir” when asked if Foster was at the PGA Championship that day.

Foster’s work and the state salary he receives have been the subjects of media scrutiny lately.

In May, the Charleston Post and Courier published a story about Foster receiving contracts to do consulting work for a political action committee with ties to Harrell.

“Foster took an eight-week, paid leave of absence from his $85,000-a-year government job to work for House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s Palmetto Leadership Council” in 2010, the story says, sourcing the information to state records.

The article quotes Foster saying, “Any and all work that I have performed for this organization (the Palmetto Leadership Council) was while I was on leave from my duties up here.” Foster “declined to elaborate,” according to the story.

More recently, The Nerve reported earlier this month that Foster’s $85,000 salary includes a 22 percent raise he received last fiscal year, and that Harrell evidently has sole discretion over the salaries of top House staffers.

To be sure, the House speaker is hardly alone in supporting the use of state tax dollars to advertise South Carolina to would-be tourists.

Fellow Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, for example, proposed in her executive budget for this fiscal year that the state allocate $500,000 toward “marketing the 2012 PGA Championship.”

Indeed, tourism marketing is a yearly, multimillion-dollar state endeavor, undertaken mainly through the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

This fiscal year, according to Office of State Budget records, more than $9.6 million is slated to flow through the PRT agency for various tourism marketing efforts. That includes $200,000 to advertise for the 2013 Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, scheduled for February and also in Charleston.

All but $580,000 of the $9.6 million-plus is recurring state funding.

The PRT Department handles some of the marketing in-house, but much of the work typically is outsourced to advertising firms.

Many tourism industry boosters, and other observers, contend that the state’s marketing money makes a difference in the economic impact of tourism in South Carolina, long the state’s No. 1 industry.

Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, told The Nerve for a story on the subject last year that the result the dollars produce “is measurable and seems to be money well spent.”

But by the industry’s own measurements, tourism seems to follow larger economic forces.

The latest data available from the U.S. Travel Association, a leading industry and advocacy group, show that tourism and travel spending in South Carolina increased 7.6 percent in 2010, reaching $15 billion.

That was a time when the economy was only beginning to recover from the Great Recession.

Nevertheless, politicians like Harrell and Haley continue to support the transfer of dollars from South Carolina taxpayers’ pockets into the coffers of state government and the accounts receivable of advertising firms.

At this year’s Governor’s Conference on Tourism Travel in February, Haley did not explicitly mention state funding for tourism marketing. Instead, she talked of her administration working to merge tourism with commerce.

“Because what we’re doing is every day we’re selling our state,” Haley said at the Greenville event. “And while you hear me say my No. 1 focus is jobs, jobs, jobs, I could not do that without tourism.”

Answering questions from the media afterward, Haley emphasized “selling” South Carolina as the key to boosting tourism in the state. “All we have to do is sell it.”

It’s a wonder if Palmetto State taxpayers buy that.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.

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The Nerve