Beaufort County defends handling of $850K business incentive

cconley@islandpacket.comJune 12, 2013 

Lowcountry Economic Alliance

Key details about an $850,000 business incentive Beaufort County Council approved this week won't be revealed until the prospective company signs off on the deal, officials say.

"The reason we are not disclosing that now is that we are still in competition with other jurisdictions for the possible location of this business," county attorney Josh Gruber said.

If the county's offer is public, he said, other local governments could sweeten their deals. That, in turn, could spur a bidding war.

"We don't want to create an economic disadvantage, where a competing jurisdiction can offer more incentives than what we disclosed," he said.

County Council approved the incentives Monday night on a 10-1 vote without specifying exactly how the money would be used, what company it would benefit and how many jobs would be created.

Councilman Stu Rodman said only that the money would purchase a piece of industrial equipment that the county would own and that the company would maintain and secure. Money for the equipment, which other businesses could use, is coming from county reserves.

"If we want to create jobs, this is the way economic development occurs," Rodman said Monday. "Even though it may be a little confusing to the general public, at the end of the day, it will get full visibility."

The county's proposal is in addition to incentives offered by the S.C. Department of Commerce, which vetted the deal for the county, Rodman said. Terms of that agency's proposal also are not public, and its spokeswoman declined to comment.

South Carolina's open records law allows state and local governments to withhold details about economic development incentives while negotiations are underway. The terms must be disclosed once the offer has been accepted or the project is made public, whichever comes later.

The law, however, does not require the government to withhold the information.

Beaufort resident Ann Ubelis says the public deserves to know more about the arrangement, especially now that County Council has approved it.

"We don't even know if it's going to create jobs," she said Wednesday, citing a litany of unanswered questions about the deal. "We don't know if this company is moving here and bringing people with it or if they are they hiring locals."

Ubelis isn't the only critic of the deal, which would be publicly announced later this month if it's approved by the company.

"We still have not seen any of the due diligence or business plans for that venture," said Councilman Steve Baer, who voted against the deal. "I just don't feel I can commit taxpayers' money with such scant evidence."

Kim Statler, executive director of the Lowcountry Economic Alliance, said companies that receive state-sponsored incentives must meet certain benchmarks for investment and job creation. The company now targeted, she said, pays "very well" and represents a "new technology."

"Our whole mission is to find companies that will grow here that pay a living wage," she said.

Statler is confident the deal will happen and is optimistic the public will support it once terms are disclosed.

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