Businessmen behind a public-sector effort to bring economic development to privately owned property in Bluffton say they are in "serious conversation" with an out-of-town company that would settle in Buckwalter Place.
Optimistically, the deal with the undisclosed company could be complete by June 30, according to Roberts Vaux, chairman of the Bluffton Development Corporation. However, it might take a while longer, Vaux said this week, noting attempts earlier this year nearly produced a deal only to fall apart.
The corporation, an economic-development offshoot of the town of Bluffton, seeks to purchase 34 acres from Buckwalter Place owner Tom Zinn for $4 million. It would then seek to lure the sort of company that would provide high-paying jobs.
Beaufort County, the Beaufort County School District and the town have pledged money to help the corporation buy the property. Though the purchase would be publicly funded, officials have declined to say what type of business would be built once the land is secured.
"We've got people who have bought into this," Roland King, a development corporation member, said of the public entities committed to paying for the land. "Does that not indicate that there must be something behind this that makes sense?"
Those involved have said owning the land would give them control over what is built there.
Such control would ensure no more retailers and restaurants rise at Buckwalter, a mixed-use site originally intended to house high-tech companies, according to town and development corporation members.
It also would appease CareCore National, a multibillion-dollar health care consulting firm that calls Buckwalter home and wants similar companies as neighbors.
CONTROLLING THE LAND
The 94-acre Buckwalter Place hit tough times during the recession.
Initially foreseen as a 24-hour urban center where residents could live, work and play, the bulldozed land saw few additions besides a gas station, a McDonald's and the Bluffton Police Department offices.
The lack of development made some town officials impatient, according to Vaux, a Bluffton-based attorney.
To fulfill their vision for the site, some reasoned it would be easier to take it over.
"The current developer wanted to maintain a revenue stream, and would put, with all due respect, almost anything and everything that keeps cash flow in his pocket," said King, a former Chrysler human resources executive. "We're not going to operate that way."
Attempts last week to reach Zinn were unsuccessful. A worker who answered Zinn's office phone Friday said he was out of town.
Zinn would receive tax incentives if he sold to the development corporation because it is a government entity, Vaux said.
The land purchase would be paid for by the town and Beaufort County, which have committed as much as $1 million each. The Beaufort County Board of Education also has agreed to forgo as much as $1.8 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years -- although the actual contribution will probably be about half that -- to help finance the purchase.
The development corporation would be responsible for the remainder. It is funded in part by the multi-county industrial park tax fund, whereby participating governments agree to give up property tax revenue from properties within the district.
Officials have said the land won't be used for retail and restaurants.
Health care, information technology and even a four-star hotel have been suggested, but nothing has been confirmed.
"The aim is not to make a Tanger 3," King said.
Plans are for companies with high-paying jobs, with many of them going to Beaufort County residents, Vaux said. He did not specify what defines a high-paying job.
CATERING TO CARECORE?
Officials have stressed that the decision to purchase the land was prompted by the town, not CareCore, Beaufort County's largest employer.
However, the health care firm comes up often when the purchase is discussed.
Bluffton town manager Anthony Barrett referred to CareCore as a "client" during a wide-ranging conversation last month about plans for the Buckwalter property.
And development corporation members say the company is an example of the type of "recession-proof" business they desire.
"Will we be fortunate enough to get another CareCore?" Vaux asked. "I pray that we would. We would be hard-pressed to do that."
King said he would love to "augment CareCore with other medical entities."
Though not behind the purchase, CareCore is a big proponent of it.
In a letter to Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka, CareCore CEO John Arlotta said he looks forward "to the development of the commercial park in the vision in which it was contemplated."
CareCore senior vice president Mark Ciamarra declined further comment, referring to the letter as the company's statement.
Attempts Friday to reach Doug Tardio, CareCore chief operating officer and vice-chairman of the development corporation, were unsuccessful.
While Vaux was optimistic about a sale date, King said a deal was not imminent.
When asked whether keeping the public in the dark until a deal is finalized shows a lack of transparency, King said there was "no clandestine plan" about the land purchase and development.
"It's not that we're trying to hide information," he said. "Some of it really has to be kept under wraps for a variety of legal and non-legal reasons."
"I will not be a party to raping this land or being a part of an insider secret deal," Vaux said.
Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.