Beaufort News

Councilmen, economic network clash over questions on commerce park sale proposal

(Editor's note: Information in this story was updated Feb. 3, 2011.)

Two Beaufort County Council members say they have struggled to get information from the Lowcountry Economic Network about the commerce park the organization wants the county to buy.

Network officials say they think they've answered all council's questions but will address any that remain.

Both sides expressed frustration with the other Wednesday as council nears a final vote on whether to buy the Beaufort Commerce Park for about $2.5 million. That vote is scheduled Feb. 14.

The park, near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in northern Beaufort County, is in danger of foreclosure because the network can no longer afford to pay off its loan for the property.

Councilmen Steve Baer and Brian Flewelling, both of whom have voted against the proposed purchase, said Wednesday afternoon they had not received pertinent details they sought from the network about the park.

Network executive director Kim Statler said she provided a document about the park Wednesday afternoon in response to a request from Flewelling. Flewelling confirmed he received it but said he had not had time to review it.

Baer said the network should be more responsive to his questions because it is asking the county to spend public money. He said he has been asking some of those questions since council first considered the issue in March.

He said the network hasn't adequately explained how likely the investment is to produce the well-paying jobs the county seeks.

"We shouldn't have to work this hard," Baer said. "If someone asks for a loan, you shouldn't have to read their mind about how they're going to pay it back."

Baer has asked whether the county could produce jobs more rapidly or with more certainty by spending the money in other ways or allowing the park to go into foreclosure.

Network officials say they have positioned the park to attract new business and generated increased interest in the property.

They say they have not closed deals with prospective companies in large numbers in part because the network couldn't offer free or discounted land while it needed cash to pay off its loan. The network also couldn't access state and federal funds for economic development that are not available as long as the park is not publicly owned, the officials say.

Councilman Jerry Stewart, chairman of the network's board of directors, said the group has provided council with "more than ample" information about the proposed purchase.

He suspects council members who continue to question the network are seeking to "micromanage" the public-private nonprofit organization, which receives about $270,000 a year from the county. He also said the questions cost network staff money and time that could be better spent courting new business.

Councilman Stu Rodman thinks he has received sufficient information about the park, although he said he will listen to public comments before making his final decision.

Rodman said if his colleagues have asked "reasonable" questions and not received adequate answers, council should take "a little more time" before voting.