Public support — and public dollars — have disappeared for a multi-million dollar Buckwalter Place land deal. That’s a win for taxpayers whose dollars were to fund this questionable real estate deal.
The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back came this week when Bluffton Town Council decided not to put money toward the purchase of 34 acres at Buckwalter Place in Bluffton. The town’s economic development arm, the Bluffton Public Development Corporation, whose members came up with the deal, were not able to proceed without the town’s money. And now, it’s financial commitments from Beaufort County and the Beaufort County School District may also disappear.
The corporation’s goal was to collectively gather about $4 million from the town, Beaufort County, the school district and a loan from Santee Cooper to buy the acreage from a private developer, make infrastructure improvements and lure a high-tech company or other desirable outfit that offered high-paying jobs to the property. It was to be the start of wave of 21st century businesses coming to the spot, helping to diversify the area’s economy beyond tourism and hospitality jobs. One such business, CareCore, is already headquartered on the property.
While that was a worthy goal, the project was riddled with problems from the onset:
• No high-tech company ever committed to building on the land. Members of the Bluffton Public Development Corporation were in talks with several companies in the last several months — but to no avail. The corporation’s inability to close the deal with a business rightly made the public officials paying for the property nervous. As Bluffton Town Council member Larry Toomer put it, the return on the investment was too uncertain and too distant for him to support the town’s expenditure.
• The public was left in the dark. The development corporation made its case for public dollars behind closed doors. Many details about the project were never shared with the public, including specifics on the types of companies the corporation was talking with and whether the chosen company would be gifted the land or have to pay for it. As we’ve previously said, those who ask for the public’s money must be accountable to the public in the way they spend it. Members of the development corporation failed to take that obligation to heart and kept far too much information hidden.
• The deal raised bigger questions about whether public bodies should be involved in purchasing and developing property in the first place. Many residents didn’t understand why the Beaufort County School District, for instance, would agree to designate $923,000 in future tax proceeds toward a land buy instead of targeting those dollars for the classroom. Bluffton Town Council member Karen Lavery has correctly raised concerns that the proper role of government does not include real estate deals. Development corporation members’ comeback to the criticism has been that many cities and towns across the country are engaged in buying and developing land in an effort to attract a certain type of business. We’re glad the “everybody is doing it” argument failed to pass muster with a majority of Bluffton Town Council.
Thursday, the developers of Buckwalter Place who owns the 34 acres, said they will go it alone to develop the property. We believe this is how it should be — private land owners seeking businesses to buy and build on the property. The goal is to still have a vibrant mix of different types of businesses, the owners said in a press release. And they also plan to continue to work closely with the town of Bluffton and its development corporation, which increases the odds of landing a high-tech company instead of piecemeal retail development.
We’re glad to see the project proceed and wish the developers well. And we continue to believe, as do members of the development corporation, that diversifying the area’s workforce and attracting high-tech companies to the area is a worthy goal.
But the process of how we get there is just as important as the final product. And this attempt — essentially a high-risk gamble with public dollars — was no good.