When the race resumes — Plans already approved could mean another population, commerce boom

January 29, 2010 

Unemployment hit its highest rate in 19 years. Home prices have slipped by as much as 15 percent in some areas, according to real estate search Web site Trulia.com. Tourism has waned, nonprofit aid organizations struggle to meet increased demand, and residential and commercial developments have been mothballed.

Few would assert the current recession has spared Beaufort and Jasper counties.

But few would assert this will be forever.

"I think that in the next 10, 15, 20 years, we're going to see a lot of people want to come to our area," said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who has often cautioned residents and officials to be prepared for a potential onslaught of new residents.

Indeed, there are some indications the local economy, like a race horse waiting for the gate to spring open, will be ready to gallop again when the recovery begins.

Will that derby be run at the breakneck speed that undermined the real estate industry and brought economic calamity? Or will it set a steady pace that can be sustained over the long-term?

Has the slowdown allowed Beaufort and Jasper counties to plan growth with a fresh eye for minimizing environmental impact? And should -- or can -- the area diversify its economy enough to lessen the impact of future downturns?

These questions will be examined in "When the race resumes," a five-day series by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

CONSTRUCTION AND DEMAND

Thousands of homes in and around Beaufort County are approved for construction but have not been built, according to statistics from several local planning departments.

It remains to be seen, however, when those homes will be completed -- and when demand for them returns.

Many developments have been around for years but are not yet fully built, like the Battery Creek Club community on Marina Boulevard in the town of Port Royal. Fifty-three townhomes have been approved but only five have been completed.

"If you drive through them, you find that there are houses built there, but not every lot that has been subdivided and has the right to build a house has a house on it," said Linda Bridges, Port Royal planning director.

In Jasper County, some 80,000 homes and 45 million square feet of commercial space have already been approved through development agreements but not yet built, according to county planning director Dave Jirousek.

Sen. Davis estimates 50,000 to 60,000 lots in Beaufort County have been recorded with the county Register of Deeds, but not yet built upon. Many developers are waiting to see when the economy will turn around and if there will be buyers.

"We've got a long way to go before that happens," said Matt Trumps, former president of the Beaufort County Association of Realtors. "Developers have thousands and thousands of lots that are platted ... but until the purge of existing homes and foreclosed homes occurs and the inventory depletes itself, residential lots really just have no value to them."

BULLISH ON THE FUTURE

Not every developer is waiting for a rebound to launch new development.

The Atlanta-based Sembler Co., for example, has plans for a 280-acre, 1.5-million-square-foot retail center called Okatie Crossing that developers say will include a core of high-end stores. Company officials said construction will start as soon as the General Assembly agrees to give it a multimillion-dollar sales-tax break.

The proposal has aroused controversy in the Statehouse and among local governments.

Additionally, Bluffton officials are in preliminary talks with a developer who wants to build a large resort-style development inside town limits.

There's more, much more in the works.

For example, Davis is pushing for a new Jasper County port terminal that would make the area a major shipping hub. Boeing has agreed to build its "Dreamliner" jet in a new 584,000-square-foot North Charleston plant, and local officials hope that will lead to spin-off industries based in Beaufort.

Any or all of these might bring new jobs, and if that happens, demand for new homes might get the real estate market chugging again, according to Allen Patterson, president of the Homebuilders Association of the Lowcountry.

"I think it's going to be a long, slow process" to full recovery, said Patterson, who owns Allen Patterson Residential, a custom home-building company based in Beaufort.

In the Bull Point development in northern Beaufort County, Patterson said he has 76 homeowners who have delayed plans to build on their lots because their 401K accounts are suddenly worthless.

"What drives our economy is people selling their houses and moving down here," he said. "If you want to move here and buy a new house, you need to have a job."

During peak times about three years ago, Patterson recalls reviewing Beaufort County home-construction permits and finding as many as 2,700 permits in the Bluffton area alone. He's now seen fewer than 300 permits issued countywide, he said.

"It's about a tenth of what it was doing in the boom," Patterson said. "You're going to see it just kind of bump along -- nothing like what it was before. They're going to be coming ... but they're going to have to have a job when they get here, and they won't."

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

As the county waits for clear signs of economic recovery, the goal should be to make sure the county is prepared for life after the recession -- with the right infrastructure, environmental safeguards and economic development plans, Davis said.

Much of that task likely will fall to local governments, whose decisions on everything from zoning to roads shape the future of a county known for its unique environment and economy.

"It's a steady thing. Nothing happens overnight," Davis said. "But the challenge for government officials is to look beyond what might happen next year. ... That's the responsibility, to make sure we have things in place that allow for growth, but allow for growth in a way that doesn't hurt what we already have."'

The rapid development of yesterday already has changed the face of the region and its environment, but the current downturn should give officials a chance to catch their breath and consider a different tomorrow, said Nancy Schilling, director of the local environmental education group, Friends of the Rivers.

"The train is in the station for a while," Shilling said. "Our region isn't the same as it used to be. The way we used to do it might not be the best for the future."

The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service