Beaufort County panel chops capital-projects list in half

dburley@islandpacket.comMay 29, 2014 

Improvements to Bluffton Parkway and a sports arena for the University of South Carolina Beaufort are among a Beaufort County panel's favorite projects, which could be paid for with a proposed 1 percent sales tax.

The Capital Project Sales Tax Commission met Thursday to cut a sweeping list of more than $600 million in desired capital projects presented in recent weeks by groups across Beaufort County.

Commission members chopped more than $300 million in projects, including some proposals to buy and develop private land, and others to renovate school buildings.

The projects would be paid for with a proposed 1 percent sales tax being considered for a referendum in November. The tax would likely raise about $240 million if kept in place for the maximum of eight years allowed by state law.

Projects that remain include purchase of the Port of Port Royal to speed its redevelopment and construction of a parking garage in downtown Beaufort.

Also making the cut is a plan to re-align a 2.5-mile stretch of Bluffton Parkway from Buck Island Road to Buckwalter Parkway. Commission members agreed the stretch is an important hurricane evacuation route. It's current alignment could cause a bottleneck for those fleeing a storm, according to member Mike Covert.

The re-alignment also would advance the Bluffton Parkway project, which will eventually reach Interstate 95, commission members said.

Still, some were concerned by the $28 million price tag, particularly since they haven't heard complaints about the road from residents.

"I haven't heard it's not working," vice-chairman Scott Richardson said. "It seems like a lot of money to me."

Richardson and member Scott Graber said they wanted to see what the project would cost if entrances were not added to neighborhoods along the parkway, such as Shell Point and Woodbridge.

"You see the beneficiaries here. ... Maybe if they bought their access points, the cost (of the project) would go down," Graber said.

Another project favored by all six commission members is a $24 million arena for USCB's Hilton Head Gateway Campus.

The university initially pitched a $35 million convention center, but was talked down by commission members who were concerned the administration had no experience running such an operation.

The university settled on the sports arena, which also could host high school graduations and community events, Richardson said.

Some of the projects left off the tentative list included repairs to the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina on Hilton Head Island, improvements to Beaufort's Southside Park and plans to renovate two Technical College of the Lowcountry buildings.Also absent from the list are Lowcountry Economic Alliance plans to buy and develop land near Beaufort Commerce Park and at the Graves Property in greater Bluffton.

However, the commission did leave the alliance's proposal to develop an industrial park on more than 800 acres near Yemassee.Not everyone at Wednesday's meeting backed the projects.

Ann Ubelis, a member of Voters Against Sales Tax, a group of Beaufort County Republicans and tea party members, said the projects aren't properly vetted and the tax "puts the cart before the horse."

She also worries that "special interests" will benefit at taxpayer expense.

"Many of these ideas are ones developers have planned for years but never executed," she said. "I think this is pandering to these interests."

The commission hasn't suggested how long the tax should last. State law allows it to remain in place for two, four, six or eight years, or until all the projects it funds are paid in full, whichever comes first.

The commission will decide how long the tax will last and finalize its list of projects at its 1 p.m. meeting Wednesday at the county administration building in Beaufort.

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

Beaufort County Capital Project List

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

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