Hilton Head Island general contractor Randy Downing purchased nearly 3,000 square feet of office and warehouse space in February at the Airport Office Park at 21 Dillon Road for $307,000.
Little did he know that nine months later he would probably have to relocate to make way for a safer, longer runway at the Hilton Head Island Airport.
"I asked my lawyer if she knew anything about it and said, 'If I had, I never would have let you buy,'" Downing said Tuesday. "It's a slap in the face."
Beaufort county sent notices in November to Downing and the other businesses in the office park, as well as those at 12, 14, and 16 Hunter Road, to tell them their buildings are targeted for demolition. A total of seven properties are needed for the project, which involves straightening, lengthening and relocating two taxiways. and extending the runway from 4,300 feet to 5,000 feet.
Beaufort County airport officials are seeking feedback on a study for some of the improvements, which will bring the airport up to Federal Aviation Administration standards. The study will examine five projects that must be completed to meet those standards, including the relocation and realignment of the taxiways.
The properties at either end of the runway are too close to the airport and are in "obstacle-free areas," according to county officials. Federal rules do not allow buildings to be in those areas, so the airport intends to buy and demolish them. They include The Deep Well Project, Insty-Prints and neighboring businesses in The Commons on Beach City Road at the north end of the runway.
Deep Well learned in 2012 about the likely need to vacate its building, which it has occupied since 2004. In response, the nonprofit created a committee of volunteers and board members to find a similar building at mid-island that would offer the same convenience and space.
Downing and other business owners at the Airport Office Park, however, say they were caught off-guard by the county's notice.
Airport director Jon Rembold contends initial notifications were made in January 2012, when work began on an environmental assessment required by the FAA.
"Also, all the work on the (airport) master plan update prior to the start of the environmental assessment included the properties affected," Rembold said.
Downing and fellow office park business owner Eric Esquivel of La Isla Magazine & Language School say poor communication and lack of a clear deadline for moving forward with land purchases have made it nearly impossible to make plans to relocate.
"It's frustrating. It's confusing, and there are a lot of unknowns," Esquivel said. "Right now, we're in limbo. We don't know what the county will offer or how soon we'll need to vacate."
A county-hired consulting firm has begun appraising the properties slated for purchase on the south end of the runway.
Rembold said the county expects the appraisals to take about 90 days, followed by offers in another 60 days. County officials have yet to determine when the businesses must relocate. Esquivel, though, said he was told his business would have 90 days after an offer is made to find a new home.
Rembold said a consultant team led by Talbert, Bright & Ellington will help owners find comparable properties. Financial assistance, as well, will be provided to help cover moving costs, he said.
The airport projects are expected to cost $12.9 million, about 90 percent of which would be funded by the FAA. Of that, $8.7 million is set aside for land purchases, with the county contributing $870,000 and the FAA covering the rest, according to the study.
Esquivel and Downing worry that won't be enough to compensate them for the costs of renovating their buildings and starting over in a new location.
"The real estate and commercial lending market is vastly different now than when it was when I bought in 2006," Esquivel said. "Today, I don't have the ability to go and make that type of investment."
Rembold responded, "Appraisals are made based on fair market value. ... Because of the fact that properties were certainly purchased at different points in the market, it is impossible to ensure offers match initial purchase prices."
Another complicating factor is the lack of suitable commercial space on the island appropriately zoned for light-industrial use.
"I have no clue where we are going to go," Downing said.
After the appraisals and offers are made on the south-end properties, the consulting team will target the north-end properties, including Deep Well, Rembold said.
Island attorney and Deep Well board member John Wilkins said a committee discussed relocation options last year, but has put its search on hold until it receives a definite time from the county for purchasing the property.
"We've gathered a list of potential properties that have become available, but have not had any substantive discussions or negotiations with owners," Wilkins said. "We'll reconvene in January to fine-tune our relocation needs."
Deep Well provides social services for poor working families, the disabled, the sick and the elderly.
"I am sensitive to the disruption in folks' businesses, and the county is committed to doing what we can to ease the burden as we move through this process," Rembold said.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom