Bluffton Town Council considers doubling as a development corporation

In an effort to fuel Bluffton's economy, town manager Anthony Barrett is suggesting a public development corporation led by council members that could borrow money and buy, sell or mortgage properties -- powers they don't have when convened as town council.

Council members would be able to "operate in a more business-friendly manner" as the board of directors of a nonprofit corporation, Barrett said at a public workshop Tuesday.

The corporation could get involved in business deals ranging from industrial parks to affordable housing.

The town would have to provide seed money or transfer town-owned property to the corporation to get it off the ground. It also would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act and audits just as the town is, said Frannie Heizer of the McNair Law Firm, who briefed the council on the proposal Tuesday.

Similar ideas are popular around Beaufort County and beyond.

The city of Beaufort and Port Royal both have redevelopment commissions that help guide development. Hilton Head Island also has considered establishing a commission to spur economic activity.

Not everyone is supports the plan.

Former Bluffton Town Council member Charlie Wetmore spoke against the proposal Tuesday, calling it financially risky for the town and less accountable to the public.

"What as town council are you all supposed to be in the business of doing?" he asked the panel. "Is it supposed to be making money for the town? Or is it supposed to be running the town in an efficient manner?"

Wetmore said there are other ways the town can ignite economic activity. He mentioned the CareCore National expansion in Bluffton as an example of a successful partnership between council and the private sector.

Wetmore said after the meeting that most nonprofit corporations are either in old cities which need a lot of redevelopment or large ones. The idea doesn't fit in Bluffton, he said.

Kim Statler, executive director of the Lowcountry Economic Network, applauded the town council for considering the move and said the advantages far outweigh the fears. Statler said public development corporations have more flexibility in dealing with private business interests.

"It's a great tool for communities to be creative in partnering with the private sector," Statler said. "The bottom line is, it's a smart thing to do."

Town council members peppered Heizer with questions on how the board would work but took no action on Tuesday.

Mayor Lisa Sulka told Barrett council would like more information on how other towns with similar corporations have fared.

Barrett said he would do additional research.

"You asked me to bring you economic development tools," he said. "This is just one."