Beaufort downtown visionaries aren't going to worry about cost -- yet

April 1, 2011 

A months-long effort to visualize downtown Beaufort's future gained momentum this week when the team leading the effort revealed an ambitious set of designs and proposals.

At this point, officials appear less interested in figuring out who will pay to enact the plans -- which range from simple building upgrades to transforming key streets and intersections -- than on getting the vision in place. After that, they hope, investors will follow.

"No place that has done anything great has had money," Demetri Baches, a planning consultant and co-director of the city's Office of Civic Investment, told a crowd of more than 80 people Monday. "If you can make people excited enough about what you're doing ... you can get money to come to you."

Many of the plans were created with the private sector in mind and are not projects the city would tackle with taxpayers' money, Mayor Billy Keyserling said.

"I don't think it takes a lot," Keyserling said of attracting investment. "Once you get two or three projects done, you get a reputation as a place that's exciting, because it knows where it's going."

For now, the Office of Civic Investment is focused on what it calls "sector one," which includes the historic district and neighborhoods east of Ribaut Road.

Planning sessions during the next 18 months will address the rest of the city.

All plans are preliminary and eventually will be presented to City Council for review and more public input.

Recommendations presented Monday included plans for a day dock, a new square at Charles and Bay streets anchored by a multi-level building, a boardwalk along the bluff on Bay Street that wraps around toward Port Royal, street improvements, a new and improved Piggly Wiggly near the intersection of Ribaut Road and Boundary Street, and a neighborhood design for the Whitehall Plantation property on Lady's Island.

Another recommendation was to convert the downtown marina parking lot into a park with commercial and residential development nearby.

A new parking garage on Port Republic Street, masked by businesses and residential development, would help make up for lost parking spaces.

The plans also called for Boundary Street to be narrowed from four lanes to two, with buildings close to the road. The plans envision the University of South Carolina Beaufort expanding its campus from Carteret Street to Boundary Street.

Designers also drew up models for homes and residential developments in neighborhoods such as Pigeon Point and Higginsonville and crafted a redevelopment plan near the old jail near Prince and Washington streets.

Officials know that fulfilling the vision will require significant private investment and cooperation from property owners.

That's where the city's Redevelopment Commission comes in, Keyserling said. The group will present the vision to key property owners to try to win their participation.

After one or two projects are completed, the commission might consider inviting small- to mid-size development companies to view the progress, to generate more momentum, Keyserling said.

Beaufort's vision is "very exciting," said Bob Moquin, chairman of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Visitor and Convention Bureau.

But attracting investment -- and more job opportunities -- remains crucial, Moquin said.

"I think we have an attractive community, we just don't have as many people here as we could because there's not enough jobs," Moquin said. "I think securing some companies that can provide jobs would help jump-start this growth and development."

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