Beaufort News

Yemassee commerce park group threatens suit over proposed county purchase of rival

Partners in a Yemassee commerce park are vowing to fight Beaufort County's plan to buy a park that the county's business-recruiting partner can no longer afford.

Charlie Marshall, a partner in the Yemassee park, says his property is better positioned to attract business than the Lowcountry Economic Network's site, which is in danger of foreclosure.

The network, a public-private group that recruits business to the region, has asked the county to buy its 165-acre park near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

County Council is expected to hold a second reading Monday on a proposal to buy the park for about $2.5 million.

Marshall says his group's property is about the same size, next to railroad tracks and Interstate 95 and offers cheaper water and sewer service.

He says the county should let the network's park go into foreclosure to reset its value, and he is threatening to sue the county if it goes through with the deal.

He says his group, River Road Ventures, couldn't compete with the county, which he said could promote its property with "an open pocketbook."

"If the county buys that property, they've put us out of business," Marshall said.

A one-year extension on the network's original three-year loan expired Jan. 15, and lenders are awaiting the county's decision before deciding what to do next, network executive director Kim Statler said.

Statler said the network property's elevation is among the highest in the county and would be less expensive to build on than Marshall's, which she says has been shown to be mostly wetlands. Marshall disputes that contention.

Network officials say letting the park go into foreclosure would put at risk the $2 million in improvements that have been made there, $375,000 of which have come directly from the county.

They say the county would be better positioned to lure companies and jobs if it owns the park because it could then sell land to prospective businesses at a loss, something the network can't do as long as it needs cash to pay off the loan.

County Councilman Jerry Stewart, a member of the network's board, said he knows little about the Yemassee property but considers the network's park "a good opportunity" in part because its proximity to the air station should make it attractive to aeronautics firms.

Marshall, however, said that proximity could be considered a detriment because local officials typically try to keep land around the air station free of development.

County Councilman Steve Baer, the lone Finance Committee member to vote against the purchase in a 5-1 tally Tuesday, said the county should have a neutral expert evaluate Marshall's park and other industrial tracts. He said the county might more effectively boost business if it lets private developers buy the park out of foreclosure or spends the money on other things, such as a conference center or business incubator.

None of those possibilities has been "analyzed in an unbiased way," he said.

"If it was your money, what would you do with it?" Baer asked. "Wouldn't you get some expert advice?"