Case has not been made to build commerce parks

Lack of success at the Beaufort Commerce Park should make Beaufort County leaders wary of building more parks.

newsroom@islandpacket.comMay 24, 2014 

Take a drive out to the Beaufort Commerce Park near U.S. 21.

Here, economic dreams were supposed to be realized. Businesses would move in, and jobs would be created. New industry would diversify the area's economy and local government would become flush with tax revenue.

The dream has not been realized despite efforts by various players during the past 30 years. Today, the vast majority of its 209 acres, 167 of which could be built upon, are vacant.

The Lowcountry Economic Network, a business recruiting organization primarily focused on and funded by Beaufort County, bought the park in 2006 but was unsuccessful in attracting new businesses. Grappling with debt and facing foreclosure as the recession revved up, the network folded, and the park was sold at auction for $2 million.

Two years ago, the city of Beaufort bought the park for $1.8 million with similar hopes of attracting new businesses and new jobs. The gamble has yet to pay off. The park has not gained any tenants since the purchase. One manufacturing business that considered locating in the park -- to great fanfare by city officials -- has since closed its local operation.

It is against this depressing backdrop that Beaufort County is considering whether to spend $59 million in public money to buy three large tracts of privately owned land and create three commercial parks. The Lowcountry Economic Alliance, the county's latest business recruiting partner staffed by many of the same people who ran the now-defunct network, says the creation of the parks would attract businesses including aerospace firms, defense contractors and information-technology companies. Money to pay for purchasing and developing the land could come from a 1 percent sales tax increase that may be considered by voters in the November election.

We've heard this pitch before. And we are not convinced that this effort will yield results.

We urge county leaders to tread carefully. It would be a huge leap of faith to believe a new park -- or two or three -- would be more successful than the former one. And it's also questionable whether large companies would not locate in the county anyway to take advantage of the county's proximity to two major ports, two rail lines and a major airport in Savannah.

That's not to say Beaufort County leaders should throw up their hands and play no role in attracting business to its borders. Diversifying the economy is an important regional goal that would not only create jobs but could potentially fend off future tax increases while preserving the current level of count services, according to County Council member Jerry Stewart.

But given the ongoing struggles of the Beaufort Commerce Park and few significant changes in the county's economic development strategy, it's hard to justify this large risk with public dollars. It feels like more of the same.

Construction of commerce parks must do more than fit an economic development plan. They must also make fiscal sense and common sense. Advocates of the news parks have yet to meet this objective.

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