The S.C. State Ports Authority might have just the buyer for a prime piece of property in the town of Port Royal -- the town itself.
Town manager Van Willis and three elected officials traveled to Charleston Wednesday for the authority's annual meeting, a day after the authority's board chairman called Willis to gauge the town's interest in purchasing the Port of Port Royal.
"We'd prefer the fate of the town to be in our hands than theirs at this point," Willis said.
Few specifics were discussed at Wednesday's meeting, but at least a conversation has begun, says Mayor Sam Murray, who accompanied Willis and councilmen Tom Klein and Joe Lee to Charleston.
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"What we're trying to do is work with the town to give them the ability to do what they see is best," Ports Authority chairman Bill Stern said.
The port property includes 317 acres, 52 of which are suitable for development, along deep water on Battery Creek. It has been closed since 2004, when the Ports Authority deemed it too expensive to operate. Since 2006, three different developers have tried unsuccessfully to buy it for residential and commercial development.
"It's just been very difficult to dispose of an asset like this," Stern said.
It might prove equally difficult for Port Royal to purchase it, however.
Only about $28 million of taxable property lies within the town's border. That limits borrowing power -- according to state laws -- to about $2.1 million, Willis said. The most recent appraisal of the port property, conducted a year ago, set its value at $22.5 million.
"It would have to be some sort of special arrangement related to holding a note and paying (the authority) as we sell parcels," Willis said.
Stern believes the authority board would be willing to sell for a reduced rate, but he doesn't believe it would sell the property to the town on the promise of proceeds from future sales.
"It would have to be a sale," Stern said. "We'd be willing to take it out over time, but we wouldn't be in a position to finance it."
Willis said officials and staff are consulting with the town's bond attorney and considering options for marketing and selling the property, in case a deal comes to fruition.
Stern said he will continue to talk with town officials and take any contract proposals to the full Ports Authority board for consideration. "Everything is on the table," he said, adding that accusations the Ports Authority isn't trying hard enough to sell the property are false.
In January, the Santa Elena Foundation offered $1.2 million for just less than 4 acres of waterfront property. The Ports Authority rejected the offer, characterizing it as "low-ball" and inconsistent with its plans to sell the property either in its entirety or in three defined chunks.
Subsequently, the foundation's treasurer, developer Dick Stewart, accused the authority of foot-dragging.
Earlier this month, Beaufort County legislators introduced bills in both houses of the General Assembly designed to hasten a sale. The proposals would force an auction of the property if the Ports Authority doesn't meet a deadline to sell it.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.