Lesson for local leaders can be found in Beaufort

Controversy over a secret redevelopment project in Beaufort should convince Bluffton, Beaufort County, school district to not behave similarly.

newsroom@islandpacket.comApril 26, 2014 

Boisterous opposition to potential redevelopment of the Beaufort Downtown Marina parking lot has prompted City Council to take the project off the fast track.

It also should prompt the city and its neighbors to carefully consider headlong dives into public-private economic ventures, though they seem all the rage.

The Town of Hilton Head Island is trolling for a leader of its newly formed economic-development corporation and will likely dangle a six-figure salary as bait.

In the town of Bluffton, an economic-development corporation seeks to purchase land in the Buckwalter area. (The private-sector owner already is offering the property for sale, but town officials who empowered the corporation want to dictate what is built there so that it is not put to such pedestrian uses as retail and restaurants.

The corporation's purse has been filled by the town and county, which have committed as much as $1 million each to buy land in Buckwalter. Also, the Beaufort County Board of Education recently agreed to chip in for the Buckwalter purchase, as well -- and incredibly, it did so with scarcely a notion about what the corporation will build there once it secures the property.

Government officials -- as well as their appointees to the boards and commissions that get to decide how public money is spent -- assure us this is not madness. Rather, this is the way economic development is done these days.

Any student of logic will recognize the fallacy of this argument. Its Latin name is argumentum ad populum,<FEFF> and it essentially means, "Everyone is doing it."

But not everyone is buying it.

Indeed, Beaufort residents are averse to actions taken in their name but without their input. Their particular disdain for redevelopment of the marina parking lot has been so overwhelming that the City Council, once poised to fast-track a plan, is starting to question not only the project's pace, but whether it will float at all.

Historic Marina Partners LLC -- the company chosen by the Beaufort Redevelopment Commission to work with the ci this project -- has released a three-page, written description for "River Place." It calls for a boutique hotel, retail shops, restaurants, and full-time and seasonal residences. It has not made public any schematics or renderings, however.

Some might ask where all of these opponents of redevelopment were before the city got so far along in this process. The answer: They were in the dark.

What's more, the brief ray of sunlight provided by Historic Marina Partners is insufficient to correct the flawed process employed by the Redevelopment Commission, which held too much too close to the vest as it sought ideas from private developers.

The commission then compounded its error by suggesting the marina property be rezoned before the public knew what the handpicked, private partner would do with the property.

Quite likely, the commission acted with the best of intentions, but quite clearly its secretiveness and haste aroused the worst of suspicions.

Are Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, Beaufort County and public-schools officials listening?

If not, the message soon will be ringing in their ears, as well. "Everyone else is doing it" will not sway a public that suspects its money and its land are being raided for private gain or for purposes it does not embrace.

If you cover the people's eyes, rest assured you will not shut their mouths.

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