Bluffton buys land, hopes to attract tech businesses

Bluffton hopes soon to reel in more private businesses, and it's tossing out fresh bait: Seven acres in Buckwalter Place purchased for its May River Technology Park.

The addition brings the park to about 30 acres, and according to town officials, will help Bluffton better negotiate with companies interested in moving to town. It also could mean more jobs and more tax dollars for the town as it attempts to become a hot spot for technology companies.

"When the town owns land, we are able to compete with other areas to attract companies and jobs," Mayor Lisa Sulka said. "Land gives the town a competitive edge when we are able to offer options to companies to reduce their initial relocation investments."

Hargray Communications and Palmetto Electric Cooperative donated cash for the land. That means the town will not have to tap tax revenues for the purchase; Hargray and Palmetto Electric will be allowed to forgo state license fees in return for their contributions.

Since 1996, state law has allowed utility companies and electric cooperatives to redirect funds that would have gone to the state in the form of fees to local infrastructure projects by municipalities and counties.

"Each year, we look at where our money can do the most good, and this project made sense," said Jimmy Baker, spokesman for Palmetto Electric Cooperative, which in the past has used its tax credit to pay for speculative buildings, land, roads, water and sewer service, and other infrastructure projects in the Lowcountry. "Bluffton is a great location for high-tech business and industry. It's in a place that has been and will be a rapidly growing area when the economy comes back."

Palmetto Electric is contributing $400,000 to the purchase. Bluffton will pick up another $80,000 from other cooperatives, as state law allows electric cooperatives that don't have eligible projects in their areas to forgo the license fee by funding projects elsewhere.

It was not immediately clear how much Hargray Communications would contribute to the purchase.

Town leaders won't reveal the land's total price until March 8 when it expects to close the deal.

The town hopes to become a magnet for technology companies. Other occupants of the park include the Don Ryan Center for Innovation, a small-business incubator that attempts to help emerging companies, and CareCore National, a benefits-management company.

Municipalities trying to spur economic development cannot operate as private businesses do. However, they can own land and set up development corporations to buy, transfer or lease property to attract business.

In 2012, the town created the Bluffton Public Development Corp. to direct economic development. The land is expected to be donated to the corporation after the sale closes. If Town Council consents, the corporation will oversee future development at the technology park.

The land purchase is not associated with an unnamed business with the code name "Project Pants" that could come to the park, according to Marc Orlando, the town's director of growth management. A joint project among the town, Beaufort County and the S.C. Department of Commerce to locate the business in the park could spur $11 million in new investment and protect 130 jobs already in Beaufort County, according to officials. The move could also bring 40 jobs from out of state and create 100 jobs within five years. Work on the project continues, Orlando said.

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