Beaufort News

Beaufort Commerce Park might become county property

A 165-acre industrial park would belong to Beaufort County if the County Council goes along a Finance Committee recommendation to buy it from an economic-development group.

The committee voted 5-1 Tuesday to buy the Beaufort Commerce Park for about $2.5 million.

"The day has come when we've got to position ourselves to cash in on commercial and industrial businesses," Councilman Gerald Dawson said. "We can't sit idly by, in my opinion, any longer and keep talking about this industrial park."

The purchase could mean a tax increase of 0.125 mils -- about 50 cents a year for an owner-occupied house valued at $100,000, according to county chief financial officer David Starkey.

In the meantime, the county has $11 million set aside to repair the Beaufort County Courthouse in Beaufort, and Starkey said not all of that money will be spent this year. The $2.5 million for the commerce park would be borrowed from the courthouse fund. The county can borrow to repay that amount later when other bonds are retired.

In 2006, the Lowcountry Economic Network, a public-private agency formed to recruit businesses to the area, purchased 200 acres near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort for the park. The network intended to pay off the loan as it sold property to the businesses it recruited. But only about 30 acres have been sold. The network says it can no longer afford the loan, and the park is at risk of foreclosure.

Kim Statler, network executive director, said commerce park property is difficult to sell because it is not publicly owned. For example, if the county owned the commerce park, it could sell lots at a loss to lure corporations and jobs. Because the economic network needs cash to pay off its loan, it couldn't negotiate such deals, no matter how attractive to the public interest, she said.

"My argument as the director has always been, you're asking me to do something with one arm tied behind my back, because public purpose with private financing doesn't always go hand in hand," she said.

In March, County Council authorized county administrator Gary Kubic to offer as much as $1.5 million for the park, but lenders rejected it.

Councilman Steven Baer wondered whether foreclosure would prompt the banks to accept a lower purchase price.

Statler said about $2 million in improvements have been made to the park, $375,000 of which came directly from the county. Letting it go into foreclosure would put that investment at risk, she said.

Baer also said the county hadn't adequately analyzed the project or considered alternative uses for the money.

"If this thing had a 60 percent chance of success, you'd see me voting for it," Baer said. "But I haven't seen a demonstration of that. I can't risk the people's money without some kind of demonstration of success, and risks and analysis."

Councilwoman Laura Von Harten disagreed.

"We don't ask for a business plan for our roads or a business plan for our parks," she said. "We need jobs for our people."

The County Council gave initial approval to the purchase at its Jan. 10 meeting, with the understanding details would be worked out by the Finance Committee. A second reading is expected Jan. 24.