Foundation eyes Port of Port Royal for Santa Elena center, but authority balks

emoody@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 16, 2014 

The Port of Port Royal

DELAYNA EARLEY — Staff photo Buy Photo

A new group wants to recognize what some believe was the first major European settlement in the New World with a center on part of the shuttered Port of Port Royal property.

However, the S.C. State Ports Authority has turned down an offer from the group -- the Santa Elena Foundation -- to purchase part of the parcel.

In the meantime, the foundation will work on an alternative, temporary site, treasurer Dick Stewart said. However, the goal remains to locate at the port, which is directly across the Port Royal Sound from Parris Island, where Santa Elena was located.

The port has been closed since 2004, when the Ports Authority deemed it too expensive to continue to operate. THE FOUNDATION

The Santa Elena Foundation's mission is to "increase economic development and tourism by promoting the historic and cultural significance of Santa Elena," according to a letter to the Ports Authority.

Foundation members plan an interpretive center and other features to showcase the area's history -- and prefer to put them at the Port of Port Royal.

"The key thing about Santa Elena was that it was founded in 1676 ... before Jamestown and Plymouth Rock," Stewart said.

Santa Elena sits on the site of the short-lived French Charlesfort, which was built in 1562. Santa Elena was settled in 1566 and remained in use for two decades.

The foundation intends the center to be operating in 2016 for the 450th anniversary of Santa Elena's founding.

Foundation members have met with the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C., Stewart said, and have planned a trip to Spain in May to look at records and other artifacts that could be incorporated into the museum, he said.

THE OFFER

The foundation has told the Ports Authority it wants to buy a portion of the port property for either $1.2 million or a fair-market price, according to the letter and Stewart.

In a Feb. 7 email, Paul Lehman, an authority vice president, rejected the offer because it was only for a portion of the property and the price-per-acre "is far below the asking price." The authority has decided to separate the land into three parcels -- one each for the bluff, marina and southern port areas -- but the portion the foundation offered to buy did not jibe with the authority's planned division.

However, Lehman's email encouraged the foundation to make a bid on the port portion.

The Ports Authority also "will continue to work with the Town of Port Royal and its Town Council to pursue a competitive and equitable sale of the property," the authority said in a statement.

LEGISLATION FORTHCOMING

State Sen. Tom Davis and Rep. Shannon Erickson of Beaufort are drafting legislation intended to accelerate the port's sale, Davis said.

"I think what needs to happen here is (to) instill a sense of urgency," he said.

The Ports Authority does not have any of the usual pressures, such as paying property taxes, that typically motivate owners to sell idle assets, Davis said.

"I think one of the ways we do that, and what my bill will do, is set a time period, and if they don't sell the property within a certain amount of time, it will be sold at auction," he said.

He is also working to get money to restore and catalogue artifacts from Santa Elena and Charlesfort, which are currently stored at the Statehouse. He also seeks to reopen the site as an archaeological dig. There have been a number of digs since the 1970s.

"We have so much right here, it is actually incredible," Davis said. "And if we could ever tell the story in full ... it would be a tremendous asset."

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.

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