Nancy Vista remembers the day Gov. Mark Sanford came to Port Royal to announce plans for the recently shuttered Port of Port Royal.
It was a warm spring day in 2005, and the town was in a festive mood. The Port Royal businesswoman had her photo taken with Sanford.
Almost overnight, she said, property values climbed. Like others, she invested in property and businesses, expecting an economic boom from the sale of the 317-acre former port.
"It was like a miracle come true," said Vista, owner of Nuances clothing and gift store. "But who would have thought, all these years later -- nothing."
Vista, former Small City cooking school owner Elizabeth Jenkins and developer Dick Stewart filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the port's owner, the S.C. State Ports Authority. They allege the authority has mismanaged the sale and failed to follow the "prudent-man rule," a concept of common law that requires trustees, such as a state agency, to handle assets as a thrifty person would.
The lawsuit says the Ports Authority has mismanaged state assets and "created circumstances that prevented the required sale to occur."
"The claim has no merit, and the matter has been referred to attorneys," Ports Authority spokeswoman Erin Dhand said via email Friday. "The SCPA will not comment further on pending legal actions."
None of the nine board members responded to questions about the lawsuit.
The port has been vacant since 2004, when it was deemed too expensive to operate. The authority was ordered to sell the land, but three attempts since 2006 have fallen through.
In an attempt to rekindle interest and spur the Ports Authority to move faster to sell the property, state legislators this past summer passed a law pushed by state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort. The law required a reappraisal and set a deadline for a sale. The Ports Authority was also granted permission to sell for as low as 80 percent of the new appraised value.
The Ports Authority has said it is negotiating with a potential buyer, but Dhand declined Friday to give an update.
Stewart is one of four known bidders to have made an offer for all or part of the property. He and representatives of two other groups have said the authority has withheld pertinent information, including the appraisal value.
Frustrated by interactions with the authority and disheartened from watching the business struggles of friends Vista and Jenkins, Stewart said he agreed to cover the legal costs of a lawsuit. His intent is to get a judge to force the authority to change its tactics.
"The Ports Authority needs to sell this property and get the heck out of Port Royal," Stewart said.
Among the allegations is that Beaufort County and the town of Port Royal have lost more than $7 million in property taxes by the land remaining in state hands, and the stalled sale has likewise stalled the town's economy.
Town manager Van Willis estimated that if the land had sold for $17 million and remained undeveloped, the town would have collected more than $250,000 in property taxes annually. That figure would increase had the property been developed.
"I want someone to notice that there are people who have been harmed," Vista said. "... There are dreams that are shattered. I just want someone to see it's had a big effect on a lot of folks, a lot of people, the whole town."
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.