Beaufort News

What’s the future of Port Royal’s waterfront? Here’s what the town is considering

Drone offers different look at the Port of Port Royal

Developers of the Port of Port Royal are expected to close on the property on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. Hurricane Irma and other Atlantic Ocean storms pushed the closing date back.
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Developers of the Port of Port Royal are expected to close on the property on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. Hurricane Irma and other Atlantic Ocean storms pushed the closing date back.

The town of Port Royal was set to welcome a new kind of marine vessel to its waterfront Thursday afternoon.

A Maxi 72 racing sailboat will dock in Battery Creek, with its long fixed keel requiring water depth not possible many places on the East Coast.

Its arrival is meant to show off the possibilities of the deep channel and introduce other possible uses for the waterfront as town leaders mull whether charter fishing boats, ferries and sails will eventually join or replace some of the iconic shrimp boats that mark one of South Carolina’s last remaining working waterfronts. Increased competition from imported shrimp and an unwillingness of a younger generation to take up shrimping are commonly blamed for the industry’s decline.

The town has operated the docks at the end of 11th Street since 2006, most of those years at losses of $60,000 to $80,000 each year. Town leaders repeated a familiar sentiment during a workshop Wednesday to hear from a committee tasked with examining the future of the docks and offering recommendations.

“We don’t want to see it go away, but we don’t want to be bad stewards of the town’s money either,” said Town Council member and Port Royal native Mary Beth Gray Heyward said.

Members of the town’s Redevelopment Commission presented the town with three options after months of digging into the operation:

  • Port Royal could continue to operate the docks as it has. The town collects rent from the boats at the docks, sells fuel and ice to shrimpers, buys shrimp and sells it wholesale using a makeshift processing facility in a nearby building owned by developers who bought the port property. “The town will probably continue to lose money every year,” commission chairwoman Virginia Eads said.
  • The town could invest in the operation and build a new facility to process and sell the seafood. About $600,000 remains from an insurance settlement after a fire burned down the previous seafood market in 2015. Officials believe a retail operation is a way to cover losses, but the option raised the question of whether a local government-backed operation should compete with area private businesses.
  • Developers with Grey Ghost Properties, which bought the former state port in 2017, could take over the docks. While some of the shrimp boats might stay, the developers would look at recruiting other businesses that would utilize the dock space. A charter fishing fleet, nonprofit sailing program and a ferry service to nearby towns and islands are among the possibilities.

Committee members said the town could also choose some combination of options.

The sailboat scheduled to arrive Thursday is associated with Warrior Sailing, a nonprofit organization that teaches disabled veterans and active military members to sail and other marine industry skills. The organization’s presence might allow operators to seek federal grants to invest in the docks, said Whit Suber, a real estate broker who is part of the development group.

Reconfiguring the dock could allow some of the shrimp boats to remain while opening areas to other uses, Suber said. He suggested shrimpers could teach the veterans to shrimp.

The possibility was also raised of keeping one or more shrimp boats permanently affixed to the docks to maintain the aesthetic appeal for town visitors and diners at Fishcamp on 11th Street, the recently opened seafood restaurant overlooking the water.

Port Royal budgeted $200,000 to operate the docks during the current fiscal year and has spent $240,000 while bringing in $184,000, town manager Van Willis said Wednesday. Redevelopment Commission chairwoman Eads said the town could make up the difference by reopening a retail operation — Willis said the docks were close to breaking even when the town sold shrimp from the market before the building burned four years ago.

Chris Butler, owner of Butler Marine and one of the port developers, said the shrimp boats should stay if they were proven to be economically viable and not an environmental threat due to sinking or leaking fuel. He questioned whether the town should be in the retail business.

“Thirteen years you have been working at this, and it has lost money every single time,” Butler told council members Wednesday. “I hate to be a bad guy in this, but any other business, we’re not here. No business can survive with 13 years (operating) at a loss.”

In preparing to make a decision, Town Council asked for the report from the commission and for information gathered by resident Lorene Nans, who advocated the town invest in the docks and a new processing facility and appoint a board to oversee the operation. She asked town leaders to seek more information on the viability of the shrimp business before making a decision.

“If we stop now, we’re going to be affecting (the shrimpers’) livelihood,” Nans said. “We talk about aesthetics all the time ... the truth is, this is a seafood industry were looking at.”

Stephen Fastenau covers northern Beaufort County as a reporter for The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where he has worked since 2010 and been recognized with state and national awards. He studied journalism and political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lives in Beaufort.
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