Local governments opening wallets to attract undisclosed business to Buckwalter Place

This aerial view from Google Earth shows Buckwalter Place looking northwest from Bluffton Parkway.
This aerial view from Google Earth shows Buckwalter Place looking northwest from Bluffton Parkway. Google Maps

Beaufort County, the town of Bluffton and a Bluffton economic development group will contribute $1 million each to purchase land to try to lure an undisclosed business to Buckwalter Place, according to local officials.

The county's share could come from its reserves. County Council authorized county administrator Gary Kubic to spend as much as $1 million from the fund, with an 8-3 vote after a closed session Monday.

Together, the groups' $3 million will buy about 34 acres of undeveloped property at the commercial development, according to Roberts Vaux, board chairman of the Bluffton Public Development Corporation.

About 10 to 12 of those acres are being marketed to a particular business, but Vaux declined to provide specifics, citing ongoing negotiations.

The development corporation is a nonprofit group that has worked eight months to lure the unidentified company, Vaux said.

Neither Vaux nor council members would say what industry the interested business is in.

In the past few weeks, the negotiations have "snowballed, in a positive way," and the corporation asked the county and town to chip in to lure the business to Bluffton, Vaux said.

The Bluffton Development Corporation, county and town would form a corporation that would purchase the property from Buckwalter Place developers, Buckwalter Commercial LLC, then try to broker a deal to land the business prospect, Vaux said.

If the deal falls through, each of the three partners would still own a stake in a high-value property, according to County Council members Laura Von Harten and Brian Flewelling.

County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville and Councilmen Bill McBride and Jerry Stewart voted against giving Kubic immediate authority to spend from the county's reserve fund. However, Sommerville said Monday he's not against the deal; he just wants more details to be ironed out before authorizing the spending.

For instance, could the county finance its share of the purchase, rather than tapping reserves? And would the corporation that is formed sell the business 10 to 12 acres at the park or offer it as an incentive?

As part of the purchase agreement, the corporation, town and county would have 90 days to answer those questions and finalize their payments after the sale is closed in the next two weeks, Vaux said.

That process will include public hearings and votes on financing or payment plans approved by each group, Vaux and county attorney Josh Gruber said.

The speed of the deal and lack of details concerned Stewart. Typically a proponent of government involvement in economic development, Stewart said this deal seems risky at this point.

"I fully support the premise and the idea, but I cannot support making that million-dollar decision without more details and draft documents," Stewart said.

County Council is working to establish a policy that would grow its reserve fund to about $30 million.

The fund would exist primarily to help the county continue operating in the event of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, but council members also have discussed using money from a larger reserve should one-time economic development opportunities arise.

This deal is an example of such an opportunity, Sommerville said.

That would not make the reserve a "slush fund" because any reserve spending requires council's consent, council members and county staff say.

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