Lowcountry Economic Alliance wants $59 million in public money for large swaths of private land

dburley@islandpacket.comMay 13, 2014 

The Lowcountry Economic Alliance wants as much as $59 million in public dollars to pay for three large, privately owned properties in Beaufort County.

Those properties would eventually be turned into commercial parks in an effort to attract what the alliance hopes would be a spectrum of out-of-town businesses, including aerospace firms, defense contractors and information-technology companies.

"The problem right now is there's no place to put a business" the size of which the alliance tries to attract, alliance executive director Kim Statler said Tuesday. "We've got to invest in property to compete."

The economic-development group seeks more than 1,200 acres near Yemassee, in greater Bluffton and in Beaufort. After purchasing the properties, the alliance would add wastewater facilities and road upgrades, among other land improvements.

The money to buy and develop the land would come from a 1 percent sales tax that might be considered in the November general election.

At a meeting with Beaufort County Council members Tuesday, alliance board members said controlling land with public funds and readying it for private companies is simply how economic development works.

They also argued the new businesses would stabilize the county's economy, unlike more volatile industries like tourism that sway with the broader U.S. market. Businesses that move in would provide jobs and property taxes, they said.

"This is our chance to put in infrastructure not just for economic development, but as a way to position (Beaufort County) to remain -- or become again -- the place we all bought into," said alliance board member Jane Upshaw, chancellor of University of South Carolina Beaufort.

THE PROPERTIES

  • Rail Industrial Park: This 832-acre site near Yemassee would be geared toward industrial development. Located near Interstate 95 exit 33, the largely wooded area could be cleared for a manufacturing firm, potentially one related to Boeing, Statler said. Nearby CSX railroad line would make easy transportation to the ports of Charleston and Savannah, she said.

    The estimated cost is about $22.7 million, according to alliance documents.

  • The Graves Property: The alliance seeks 46 acres of the more than 100-acre tract. It sits along the Okatie River on U.S. 278 in greater Bluffton. Statler said she envisions information-technology and health care firms at the site.

    The estimated cost is about $12.8 million.

  • Beaufort Commerce Park expansion: The development group wants about 449 acres near the current Beaufort Commerce Park. This site could be used for an aerospace manufacturer or defense contractor, Statler said.

    The estimated cost is about $23.4 million.

The current commerce park, which began about four decades ago as a private venture, has a long history of struggling to attract companies. Most of the 209 acres -- 167 of which can be built upon -- are vacant.

The city of Beaufort bought the park in 2012 for $1.8 million from S.C. Bank & Trust. The previous owner, the Lowcountry Economic Network, which Statler oversaw, folded after it could no longer afford the mortgage and the county refused to bail it out.

Statler said Tuesday that the park was too small and lacked the roads to accommodate many of the companies she was seeking. The companies did not want to pay money for those improvements, she said.

HOW TO PAY FOR THESE PROPERTIES

County officials said these land acquisitions won't happen without a referendum.

"There would be no other funding source" to do this, county administrator Gary Kubic said during the alliance's meeting.

Statler gave a presentation Monday to the Beaufort County Capital Project Sales Tax Commission. Her proposal almost equaled the Town of Hilton Head Island's desired projects, which totaled about $60 million.

Commission members noted the alliance's high price tag and told Statler to pick one or two of the projects to lower the cost. As is, the price would be at least a quarter of the possible tax dollars collected.

The commission has until the beginning of June to create a list of projects from across the county that could be paid for with a tax increase.

County Council must approve all the proposals by Aug. 15 if the sales tax measure is to go before voters.

The commission has not determined how long the tax would be in place or how much money it would seek to raise. State law requires such a tax to be in place for two, four, six or eight years, or cease when all the projects it funds are paid in full.

Beaufort County's tax would generate about $30 million a year, according to county attorney Josh Gruber.

WHY SHOULD VOTERS BUY THESE PROPERTIES?

Statler said bringing businesses to these sites would help county residents, whose property taxes serve as "the backstop to the budget."

In Beaufort County, she said, .25 percent of tax collection comes from manufacturing firms. That's compared to 14.5 percent in Orangeburg County and 13.7 percent in Spartanburg County, according to her data.

"If we don't increase the business base, the only way to generate money is on the resident," she said.

She also argued these companies would bring jobs similar to Bluffton's CareCore National, where employees make an average of $33.55 an hour.

These incomes would "ripple through the economy."

But what if voters purchase the land and no companies come?

It's a risk, she acknowledged.

"But the bigger risk is doing nothing," she said. "If we do nothing, we accept the fact that we're a retirement community."

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

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