Company wants Bluffton to sell $8.5M in bonds to help build medical center

A company proposing a $78 million medical center in Bluffton has asked the town to issue an $8.5 million bond to help it buy and develop its future site.

PACE Healthcare Management officials said the seven-year bond would signal community support for the center and help them secure financing for the building proposed on town-owned land on Bluffton Parkway near S.C. 170.

PACE Healthcare Commons would consist of a 32-bed, long-term, acute-care hospital, a 24-bed rehabilitation hospital, a 22-bed geriatric psychiatry hospital and a 120-bed, skilled-nursing facility, its officials say.

A PACE news release Friday said the "project development installment bond" would pay for buying the land from the town and financing site development, which would include parking lot construction, utility connection costs and road impact fees.

The Hilton Head Island-based company would guarantee the bond and make monthly payments with interest for seven years, the release said. As a for-profit health care center, the proposed PACE Healthcare Commons is not eligible for tax-exempt bond financing, according to the release.

PACE expects to hire more than 300 people, with the average salary at about $46,000, said chief operating officer Elizabeth Lamkin, who is the former CEO of Hilton Head Hospital.

Town manager Anthony Barrett called the proposed center "an economic development windfall" -- a catalyst for jobs, residential and retail development, and an expanded tax base.

Barrett, who first saw the proposal in writing Friday, said it will go to Town Council for consideration. After the company's business and financial plans are vetted, final terms of a deal would be outlined in a memorandum of understanding between PACE and the town, he said.

PACE CEO Brian Cain, who first notified the town of the project in 2009, is confident the town will back the plan. The public-private partnership would be a "very important endorsement" to raise more money in tight capital markets, he said.

"We are committed to the project being in this community," Cain said. "But we definitely need to have the community support it."

Lamkin said the company wants to build the inpatient center in Bluffton because of its increasing population of people over 55 and its proximity to Hilton Head, Beaufort, Savannah and Charleston, where patients discharged from hospitals in those areas could receive the next level of treatment they need to live independently.

PACE officials also see the University of South Carolina Beaufort and the Technical College of the Lowcountry as providing an educated workforce for the center.

The center has been awarded two certificates of need, for its nursing facility and geriatric psychiatric hospital, from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. It is in the process of applying for certificates for the long-term, acute-care hospital and the rehabilitation hospital, Lamkin said.

Town Councilman Mike Raymond said PACE's proposal is low-risk for the town because PACE has a solid plan, and its certificates of need show the project is in good standing with state regulators.

Without the town's help, a deal of this size could not go through because of the difficulty businesses face in getting loans in the current economy, he said.

"The bottom line is, they can't get the money in today's credit market to do these big deals," Raymond said.