County Council moves closer to buying struggling commerce park

Beaufort County Council made another step Monday toward buying a $2.5 million industrial park, a move Chairman Weston Newton characterized as going "all in" on economic development.

"I hope that history proves us right," Newton said. "The alternative I don't believe is acceptable to any of us and certainly does not promote job creation and capital investment."

For the Beaufort Commerce Park, that alternative would likely be foreclosure.

In 2006, the Lowcountry Economic Network, a public-private agency that recruits businesses to the area, bought 200 acres near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort to create the park. The network intended to pay off its loan as it sold property to the companies it recruited. But only about 30 acres have been sold. The network says it can no longer afford the loan.

Partners in a Yemassee commerce park say the purchase would put them out of business because the county can sell land for less. They have threatened to sue the county if the deal goes through.

Councilman Jerry Stewart said the purchase wouldn't necessarily put owners of private industrial parks at odds with the county.

Kim Statler, network executive director, said the group works to meet prospects' needs, and it wouldn't favor the publicly owned park.

"We push all of our available properties out -- including those that are private sector that may not be members of our organization -- if we think they have the ability to translate into jobs and capital investment," she said.

But if the county owns the park, it could make deals with potential developers or sell lots at a loss to lure jobs, Statler said.

"I don't expect, in the short term, that we're going to be any more successful in moving this property because it's owned by the county," Newton said.

But he said one of the biggest complaints regarding economic development has been the high price of land.

"If having control of this property for the purpose of making public-purpose deals promotes capital investment and job creation, then this is the right thing to do," Newton said.

The proposal passed 9-1. Councilman Brian Flewelling cast the lone "no" vote on the purchase.

"I think that places us in the position of competing against private interests with public dollars," Flewelling said. "I have a little bit of a problem with that."

Councilman Steve Baer, who has criticized the purchase in prior meetings, was absent.

A public hearing on the purchase and a final reading is slated Feb. 14.