|By Dawn Bryant, The Sun News, Myrtle
Beach, S.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 29, 2012--Myrtle Beach tourism leaders say the area has lost a voice for their industry with the death of longtime lobbyist Tom Sponseller, whose body was found Tuesday.
Columbia police, who found Sponseller's body Tuesday in a parking garage more than a week after he was last seen, said Sponseller killed himself, according to McClatchy Newspapers.
The news has shocked some area leaders, who have been concerned since Sponseller, chief executive of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina, was last seen Feb. 18 near his office in downtown Columbia. Since then, officials have said they are investigating reports of missing money at the association, with the investigation centered on the association's accountant, Rachel Duncan.
Myrtle Beach area leaders say Sponseller was a respected lobbyist who worked hard for the Grand Strand.
"It's just a sad day in South Carolina," said Mark Lazarus, who owns Wild Water & Wheels in Surfside Beach and an amusement park in North Myrtle Beach. "I'm shocked. It's sad it comes down to this."
Lazarus, who said he had worked closely with Sponseller for at least 15 years on a variety of issues, said Sponseller was a key leader in helping change state law to not require bars and restaurants to use minibottles and the ongoing debate over the use of pool enclosures during the winter at hotels.
"Tom has had a hand in helping us better our industry," Lazarus said. "Tom was always a go-to guy. Tom always did what he said he would do."
Sponseller was key in merging the state's separate hotel association and restaurant association into the current hospitality association, which gave the industry more of a united voice, said Gary Loftus, a former Myrtle Beach hotelier who also is an Horry County Councilman. Sponseller would be direct with Myrtle Beach leaders, telling them when an idea had no chance of making it through the legislature, Loftus said.
"If it was some issue, he had a way to attack it," Loftus said. "He was worth everything that we paid him and a lot more."
Loftus said he doesn't think Sponseller is involved in the hundreds of thousands of dollars that officials say is missing from the association.
Sponseller will be missed, said Stephen Greene, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association.
"He was a champion of hospitality and tourism and he gave so much to the state of South Carolina and to the industry," Greene said in an email. "His dedication, knowledge and hard work have shaped the future of our industry."
Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said in a news release that Sponseller would be remembered for his hard work.
"Tom's dedication to improving and assisting South Carolina's leading industry was evident to those who worked closely with him," Dean said in the news release. "We will always remember Tom's hard work, commitment, and the positive impact he had on the South Carolina hospitality and tourism industry."
Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296.
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