We now know who the city of Beaufort plans to work with to redevelop the parking lot at the Beaufort Downtown Marina, but we still don't know what they have in mind.
To its credit, the city wants to take an ugly parking lot situated in one of the most beautiful spots on earth and see if it could be turned into something that can pump more dollars into the economy and the tax base. The 4.2-acre tract is on the big bend in the Beaufort River that has defined Beaufort for three centuries. It is on Bay Street, bordering the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, the marina, and the bluff along the river.
The land is owned by the public. But City Council and its non-elected Redevelopment Commission want to spur private development on the land. Last week, it reached a milestone by signing a memorandum of understanding with a private firm to design possible new uses of the land, to perhaps include a combination of residential, commercial and lodging.
The city has left the public in the dark. It wants the public to trust that the right thing will be done, but all along has undermined that trust. Last week, it announced who will devise the future plans. But that came prior to the Redevelopment Commission voting to accept the memorandum of understanding with its chosen firm, Historic Marina Partners, LLC. That means that decisions that were supposed to be made in public were made in secret.
It was one more indication that the city considers this to be a private development, immune from the pesky details of the Freedom of Information Act, which protects the public's right for public business to be conducted in public. Previously, the city has denied requests to see information showing who was interested in this prime piece of land and what they might want to do with it.
Also, the city has said it could legally act in secret because a contract is involved. Then it said there was no contract.
Their condescending attitude toward the public was best illustrated last week when City Council member Mike Sutton presented to the press a copy of the "secret" plans the city has been working on with developers. It was a rolled up, blank sheet of paper. It was a juvenile gesture and a detriment to public trust. The public has long had a lot of questions that deserve more than a blank answer.
Where will parking be offered? Should the municipal parking lot be closed? When? What will it look like? Who will own it? How much will it cost?
Will the Redevelopment Commission sell the waterfront land, or lease it? What is the land worth? Does the public want to sell it?
What are the basic numbers involved for development: Cost for property, cost for improvements, costs to do business there, return on investment? What density and land use will be required to make the numbers work?
When will the city fill in the blanks?
The new memorandum of understanding sheds some light. It gives Historic Marina Partners 180 days to produce drafts of a development plan. It is to have the assistance of the Redevelopment Commission, which is a public body bound by the Freedom of Information Act. The land must be rezoned. And future plans are to be "generally consistent with" the city's Civic Master Plan, and other more specific development regulations. And, with the assistance of the Redevelopment Commission, the developer must present proof to City Council that the project will be financially self-sustaining.
We are encouraged that Jim Chaffin is involved. He was introduced last week as part of Historic Marina Partners, along with Steve Navarro, president of The Furman Co. of Greenville. Chaffin -- whose ideas we have seen for decades in local developments including Sea Pines, Spring Island, Callawassie Island and the Chechessee Creek Club -- understands the value of this site to the people and history of Beaufort.
Historic Marina Partners says it wants public input as it fills in blanks for a potentially exciting boost to downtown Beaufort. Navarro and Chaffin know that to develop this beautiful piece of public land, they must gain the public's trust.
So must the city.