Bluffton creates ground rules for proposed $78M medical center

The town of Bluffton laid ground rules Wednesday for a company that wants its help to build a $78 million medical center.

PACE Healthcare Management will be required to provide detailed financial information about its plans and pay the town $25,000 for consultants to review that data.

If it passes review, the town would then consider whether to issue a bond of no more than $7 million to aid the company in buying and developing a site on Bluffton Parkway near S.C. 170. PACE would be required to guarantee the 10-year bond and make monthly payments, with interest.

In February, the company asked the town to issue an $8.5 million, seven-year bond for the proposed medical center.

The 198-bed, for-profit PACE Healthcare Commons would consist of four hospitals to serve patients discharged from local hospitals. Company officials have said the project would add more than 300 jobs in Bluffton, offer state-of-the-art medical care and provide job opportunities for graduates of local colleges.

Town manager Anthony Barrett, who drafted the guidelines for vetting the company, said the town isn't likely to go higher than a $7 million bond, and the guidelines do not commit the town to a partnership. If PACE agrees to the terms, town staff would review the financial consultants' analysis and make a recommendation to the Town Council, he said."This is just the beginning of the process in working with the town to determine whether we can move forward," said PACE CEO Brian Cain.

Town Council approved the guidelines Tuesday in a 4-1 vote after a closed session. Councilman Fred Hamilton dissented.

Councilman Mike Raymond said he supported the guidelines, in part because PACE would be required to pay for the town's review and because the town is not yet committed to a partnership.

"Financial consultants will tell us if it's even worth pursuing," Raymond said. "That's how preliminary this is."

But Hamilton said accepting the company's money to vet the financial data indicates the town has already bought into the concept of backing the medical center financially.

Hamilton said he wants to see a firm commitment from the company on the number of jobs for local residents.

"Unless (PACE) can come up with something that can clearly give the local residents a guaranteed number of jobs, we're asking our taxpayers to support something that's not going to benefit their investment," Hamilton said.

The medical center has received two certificates of need from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control -- one for a 120-bed skilled nursing facility and one for a 22-bed geriatric psychiatry hospital.

It has not yet received certificates of need for a planned 32-bed, long-term acute-care hospital or a 24-bed rehabilitation hospital.