Beaufort County offering business incentives worth $850K to entice 'Project Robot'

cconley@islandpacket.comMay 7, 2013 

Beaufort County has offered incentives worth as much as $850,000 to an undisclosed business seeking to move to or expand within the county.

Details about the type of business, where it would be located and how many jobs it would create are not being released by the county, which is working with the Lowcountry Economic Alliance and the S.C. Department of Commerce to broker the deal.

County Councilman Stu Rodman said Monday the money would be spent on "industrial equipment" that the county would own. Funding for the incentives likely would come from reserves.

"The piece of property is a piece of industrial equipment," Rodman said. "It would be used not only by that company, but we believe it would be useful in attracting other companies to the area, so it would be a shared asset."

That's about all that has been disclosed publicly about the potential deal, code-named "Project Robot."

And that might be all that's released until after it's completed.

County attorney Josh Gruber said details about the county's efforts to work with the business are exempt from disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act.

"As required by law, as soon as the project is finalized (announced) and the incentives accepted, we will publish the details of the project," he said in an email.

Kim Statler, executive director of the economic alliance, said there are good reasons for not disclosing details of the county's offer.

"It puts us at a competitive disadvantage with other communities who are also vying for the business," she said. "Until we have an actual agreement, it doesn't make sense to divulge it."

County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville said the business might also have reasons to seek anonymity.

"There may be a competitor in that same field looking for the opportunity to jump in and potentially be first," he said.

The proposal cleared a preliminary hurdle Monday by a 10-1 County Council vote. If the business chooses the county's offer, at least two more votes are required for final approval.

The lone dissent came from Councilman Steve Baer, who cited a lack of information, documentation and guarantees that the investment would pay off. He also believes there has been a lack of due diligence.

"It reminds me of a timeshare presentation," he said at the meeting. "All sizzle, no substance."

Baer noted that the company could one day depart for a better offer, leaving the county in a lurch. He also predicted money for the incentives could require a tax increase or come at the expense of other projects.

Rodman responded that incentives are being considered in cooperation with the state, which presumably is screening the company thoroughly.

"This would be as a partnership with the Commerce Department, where they're putting money in and we're putting money in," he said. "It would not go forward unless we have their commitment that they have done the type of due diligence you spoke about."

Attempts Tuesday to reach a spokeswoman with the S.C. Department of Commerce for comment on Project Robot were not successful.

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