Patriots Point is working to create a "you were there" Vietnam war experience, and expects that at least 20,000 people will visit the state-owned museum complex to see that attraction.
Charleston County Council tentatively agreed to give the Patriots Point Development Authority $200,000 from accommodations tax funds to pay for the majority of the cost, estimated at $390,000.
"Economics aside, this is just the right thing to do," County Councilman Henry Darby said.
While the war in Vietnam, which claimed more than 58,000 American lives, was an experience that traumatized the nation, local officials believe that the 50th anniversary of the arrival of U.S. ground troops in Vietnam is an opportunity for people to learn about the conflict.
That anniversary arrives in 2015, and Patriots Point plans to open the "Vietnam Experience" by September 2014, according to Executive Director Mac Burdette.
"There are more than 5 million Vietnam War veterans still living," Burdette told County Council members. "They need, and deserve, a place that is dedicated to telling their story."
Patriot's Point has a Vietnam exhibit now, the Vietnam Naval Support Base Camp, that opened in 1993 and features one of the nation's last remaining Mark 1 River Patrol Boats. The heavily armed but lightly armored fiberglass boats, known as PBRs, were used to patrol the river deltas in Vietnam, and much of the action in the Vietnam war movie "Apocalypse Now" takes place aboard a PBR.
The PBR at Patriots Point is undergoing repairs and restoration work, and will be part of the expanded Vietnam Experience attraction.
The expansion will add a simulated Firebase area and interactive exhibits, such as foxholes, a command tower with a searchlight, and a Howitzer, according to a concept plan shown to County Council members.
"The visitor will transition from the Naval Support Base environment to the Firebase by walking under a bridge and through a metal tunnel," the draft said. "Visitors will immediately begin the immersive Firebase experience by hearing gunfire, helicopters, and commanding officer's orders."
Patriots Point is spending about $100,000 of the authority's funds on the project, in addition to the accommodation tax money from Charleston County and support from businesses.
Burdette said the Vietnam Experience is part of an effort to incorporate new technologies into the museum exhibits, which include the aircraft carrier Yorktown.
"Our goal is to increase visitation to 300,000 annually," he said.
According to Burdette, Patriots Point increased ticket sales by 11 percent in the past year, and had about 250,000 visitors.
Burdette has also said he hopes to secure the traveling Vietnam Wall exhibit as part of the 2015 commemoration, which will be observed nationally.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552