Common sense says we need a fresh start on economic development in this area after the Beaufort Commerce Park debacle.
Common sense says we should await the results of two studies commissioned to tell us how to proceed before making any long-term plans or spending decisions.
And common sense raises questions about hiring the same people who ran the soon-to-be defunct Lowcountry Economic Network, even if on a month-to-month contract, to continue working on economic development efforts here.
The 10-year-old network is shutting its doors because it couldn't make payments on the $2.6 million it owed a consortium of banks for the industrial park in northern Beaufort County. The banks are attempting to foreclose on the property.
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The network had stopped collecting dues because of concerns the lenders would seize any contributions, Kim Statler, the network's executive director, has said. The banks are seeking a deficiency judgment, which would have the network pay the difference between what is owed and what the property brings in an auction. Two recent appraisals put the property's value between $1.6 million and $2 million.
Now some local governments are shifting membership and money to the Lowcountry Economic Alliance, a related organization created in 2008 by Beaufort and Jasper counties.
The decision by the city of Beaufort and the town of Port Royal to shift their financial commitment from the Lowcountry Economic Network to the Lowcountry Economic Alliance seems premature.
The municipalities would do better to wait for the foreclosure issue to be resolved and for the studies to be concluded -- one commissioned by Beaufort County and one commissioned by the alliance.
Beaufort, Bluffton and Hilton Head Island each paid $15,000 a year, according to the network's website, and Port Royal paid $7,500. Jasper County plans to switch its $20,000 allocation from the network to the alliance.
We would urge Bluffton and Hilton Head Island, who have been asked to join Beaufort and Port Royal, to hold off until there is clarity on how to tackle economic development. Beaufort County should proceed carefully, too.
All should get legal advice on the liability of members' switching allegiances from a group facing foreclosure and a deficiency judgment to a very similar entity with many of the same players.
The Lowcountry Economic Alliance and the Lowcountry Economic Network, as their names suggest, have a lot in common. Both have been supported by Beaufort and Jasper counties. Both have had the same staff. They share board members.
Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart, who has served on the boards of both groups, said recently that he thought the alliance was separate enough from the network that it could not be pursued by the network's lenders.
"I hope we're on safe legal grounds here," Stewart said.
Everyone involved must be sure.
Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said he wanted to signal strong support for economic development with his city's pledge to the alliance.
There are things to be done. Statler and Jessica Bridges, who joins her from the network, are to work with prospective businesses, oversee the study commissioned by the alliance and perhaps supervise lobbying efforts in Columbia.
The budget approved at the alliance's June 21 meeting shows $369,543 available and a plan to spend all of it, including $228,000 for "staff contract" and $64,950 for the study. Statler's company, Lowcountry Consulting, is to be paid $15,566 a month under a contract that started July 5.
That budget suggests a lot can get done while officials sort out the best approach going forward.
The alliance has been relying on state funding matched by private contributions. It has been allocated $600,000 for this year, but may have trouble with the matching requirement. Statler said the alliance has used utility tax credits and network members' contributions to come up with the private contributions match in previous years. The utility tax credits cover only about half the $600,000 allocation, and the network is going away.
It again illustrates how intertwined these two groups already were. And it suggests local officials should be cautious in how and when they rejoin the economic development game. We need a clear plan and a way to execute it.