Bluffton council approves up to $1M toward land purchase at Buckwalter Place

dburley@islandpacket.comMarch 25, 2014 

This aerial view from Google Earth shows Buckwalter Place looking northwest from Bluffton Parkway.

GOOGLE MAPS

Bluffton Town Council voted to contribute up to $1 million to help purchase land in Buckwalter Place Tuesday night.

The approval, on a 3-2 vote, completes a partnership with Beaufort County and a Bluffton economic development group working to bring an unidentified business to the commercial park.

Under the partnership, the town, county and development group would each contribute up to $1 million to buy about 34 acres of undeveloped property in the center and on the north side of Buckwalter Place.

The economic development group -- a nonprofit organization called the Bluffton Public Development Corp. -- hopes the partners will buy the 34 acres because the group already has plans to sell about 10 to 12 acres of that land to an unidentified company, according to Roberts Vaux, the group's chairman. Officials have refused to name the company or provide further details, citing ongoing negotiations.

Bluffton council members were adamant that Tuesday's vote did not mean the town's money was guaranteed. Instead, they stressed that the money would be released under the condition that the development group comes back with a suitable proposal. It would then be put to vote.

"There's no deal yet," Councilman Ted Huffman said. "We're expanding our options."

The vote came after a closed-door meeting that lasted more than two hours.

Councilman Fred Hamilton and Councilwoman Karen Lavery dissented.

"I don't think the town should be in the business of buying land," Lavery said after the vote. "We're not the 'Bluffton Real Estate' company."

"There's too many moving parts for me," Hamilton said.

'NO SECRET DEAL'

The 34 acres in question are owned by Buckwalter Place developer Tom Zinn.

Mayor Lisa Sulka said the town and county's decision to consider buying the land would give them more control over what business comes to the commercial park. She mentioned the park's primary tenant, CareCore National.

"When you have a billion-dollar company, don't you think they want other million-dollar companies around them?" she asked.

Other town officials said the money is merely a first step in the real estate process, and not a clandestine move with public dollars.

"There's no secret deal here," assistant town manager and development corporation director Marc Orlando said.

It has not been decided how the town will come up with the money, according to director of finance Shirley Freeman.

It could use a combination of borrowing and reaching into it's reserve fund, for example, she said.

"The town will be able to do that," she said. "They have an option or two."

In February, Vaux, the chairman of the development corporation, said the deal would have to close quickly. He did not say Tuesday if there is a deadline.

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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