Bluffton development group hopes to complete land deal by July 31

mmcnab@islandpacket.comJune 24, 2014 

A corporation started by the town of Bluffton to bring high-tech companies to the area has a prospect, a deadline and a low-interest loan from a public utility to purchase 34 acres in Buckwalter Place, corporation officials said this week.

The Bluffton Public Development Corporation also has its eye on more property currently owned by Buckwalter Place's private developer.

The corporation believes that if it can buy the land from developer Tom Zinn by July 31, it has a shot at recruiting a company to locate there, the corporation's board chairman, Roberts Vaux, told the Beaufort County Council's Finance Committee.

"They're simply not interested in moving forward unless we (get the land)," Vaux said Monday.

Vaux would not identify the company, nor would county officials.

County deputy administrator Bryan Hill said the corporation must present the company to the town and county before it can be approved for development in Buckwalter Place.

The corporation also would seek an option to purchase an additional 22 acres in Buckwalter Place from Zinn, according to Marc Orlando, the corporation's director and Bluffton's deputy town manager.

Bluffton officials have said they can speed development of the property if its development corporation owns it, presumably by offering incentives not available to a private developer. Whether the corporation would sell the land to a prospective company or lease it is unclear.

Zinn would also receive tax incentives if he sold to the development corporation, because it is a government entity.

'A SOLID PLAN'

The county and Bluffton have each pledged $1 million, and the Beaufort County School District will contribute as much as $1.8 million over the next 10 years, to fund the $4 million purchase of the first 34 acres.

On Monday, the corporation secured the rest of the money it needs to make the deal, when state-owned utility Santee Cooper approved a 10-year, $1.8 million loan to the corporation, Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said.

The corporation will pay 2 percent interest for the first five years of the loan, which will then reset to the U.S. prime rate for the final five years, Gore said.

"They came in with a solid plan that will lead to jobs' creation," she said. "We're looking to help them do it."

Palmetto Electric Cooperative -- which provides electricity to Buckwalter Place and is one of the electric cooperatives around the state that buys power from Santee Cooper -- recommended the corporation to Santee Cooper. Orlando said he met with officials to begin applying for the loan in April during the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing golf tournament on Hilton Head Island.

ADDITIONAL FUNDS URGED

A few hours after news of the loan approval was released Monday, the county's finance and governmental committees unanimously recommended the county allow the corporation to use an additional $700,000 from a fund that collects taxes from Buckwalter Place.

The park is much like a special tax district, with property taxes paid to the county and town on buildings there. That revenue is then set aside to pay for infrastructure improvements at the park.

If the resolution is approved by Bluffton Town Council and the County Council next month, it would raise the amount the corporation is allowed to spend from the park's revenue from $1.3 million to $2 million. That money would serve as collateral for the Santee Cooper loan, county attorney Josh Gruber said.

Town Council will vote on the proposal July 15. County Council will vote July 28.

Payments on the loan likely would come from the increase in property tax revenues as the purchased land is developed, Gruber and Orlando said Monday.

Santee Cooper approved four other loans Monday totaling $7.2 million, all for the construction of buildings in commercial or industrial developments in other parts of the state.

Lending money for real estate deals isn't new to the company, Gore said, as it made a loan to help purchase land at the S.C. Inland Port in Greer during previous loan cycles.

Island Packet staff writer Zach Murdock contributed to this report. Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

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