Economic network to consider annexation by the city of Beaufort

Some Lowcountry Economic Network officials think the Beaufort Commerce Park, which is mostly empty and in danger of foreclosure, would be more attractive if it were in the city of Beaufort instead of unincorporated Beaufort County.

That's why the board of the network, a public-private nonprofit group that recruits business to the region and receives about $270,000 a year from the county, today will consider seeking annexation of the park into the city.

Board member Dean Moss said he has heard that there is some interest in buying the park but that those involved "didn't particularly want to do business with Beaufort County" and would rather work with the city. He said he didn't know the identities of the interested parties.

"It's easier to develop in the city than it is in the county," Moss said. " ... The city would have more interest in making things actually happen."

Network chairman Jerry Stewart, also a Beaufort County Councilman, said the county is frequently and unfairly the target of such criticism. He said county officials have done much to aid the park's development and are working to be friendlier to business.

Last year, Beaufort officials discussed helping the county purchase the park. On Tuesday, they said they are not planning to participate in such a deal or buy the park themselves.

"We have no silver bullet to buy it," City Councilman Mike Sutton said. "We would have to have partners if we even thought about that."

The possibility of annexation is unlikely to stave off foreclosure, but it could make the park more attractive for someone to buy from lenders, Moss said.

The board is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. at the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority.

Board members previously said they plan to discuss whether to dissolve the network. That discussion is slated for a closed session.

An agenda released Tuesday also included consideration of the park's annexation. That discussion is slated for an open session.

The network's future is in limbo because banks have threatened to foreclose on the park, which the network bought in 2006. Network officials say the organization no longer can afford debt payments on the property.

The banks seek a deficiency judgment, which could compel the network to pay the difference should auction proceeds not satisfy the remaining $2.5 million debt. Network officials have said the organization could not withstand a judgment of any size.

Attempts Tuesday to reach network executive director Kim Statler were unsuccessful.

If the network decides to seek annexation, Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling expects the city would welcome it.

He said Beaufort could provide a friendlier business environment and a more predictable permitting process than the county. Taxes would be higher in the city, but Keyserling said city officials would be willing to discuss tax incentives to eliminate that obstacle.

He said at least two network officials have approached him about annexation.

The development agreement the county approved in 2006 contained streamlined zoning and permitting procedures for the park, but Keyserling and Moss said more could be done to smooth the path for prospective companies.

"My understanding is that remains a problem," Keyserling said.

Stewart said any buyer should consider that the county's business license fees are generally lower than the city's and that the county would retain some control over the park through an agreement designating the property a multi-county industrial park.

Staff writer Juliann Vachon contributed to this report.