Beaufort News

Beaufort County councilman asks if network is best approach to economic development

Beaufort County should consider putting county staff in charge of economic development again, Councilman Steve Baer said Wednesday.

Efforts to recruit new business to the county are currently led by the Lowcountry Economic Network, a nonprofit, public-private partnership that formed 10 years ago and replaced a county department.

In a memo to his colleagues, Baer called for the council to discuss the issue at its upcoming retreat.

"Would our economic development goals be better or more efficiently achieved if the LEN's functions (along with their funding) were brought into the county staff structure?" Baer asked in closing the memo.

Kim Statler, the network's executive director, and county administrator Gary Kubic both said a public-private approach is common elsewhere and allows the county to use the money and perspective of private business to help lure more.

"If he's right," Statler said of Baer, "then everybody else is wrong."

Statler said many council members have supported in previous debates the county's approach to economic development.

Kubic said businesses, which exist to make a profit, can provide valuable input that government cannot.

He provided an example: CareCore National, the health care company that received land and other incentives to move its headquarters from New York state to Bluffton in 2007, knows better than county staff how to tout the benefits of doing business in the Lowcountry, he said.

"CareCore can go to other companies in New York and go, 'Hey, fellas, we got a great deal,'" Kubic said.

Baer's question about the county's economic development approach comes as council is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to give final approval to spending $2.5 million to buy 165 acres of the Beaufort Commerce Park, a mostly empty industrial tract the network bought in 2006 but can no longer afford.

Baer, a candidate for a seat on Hilton Head Island Town Council in Tuesday's special election, has criticized the network and the county's plan to buy the park.

Supporters of the purchase say it is necessary in part so the county can compete with more than 30 other counties in the state that own industrial property or parks and often give free or discounted land to prospects.

Baer estimates it would cost taxpayers about $200,000 a year to pay off the purchase.

The network already receives about $270,000 a year from the county, an amount network officials say the county spent on economic development before the network formed.

Municipalities, schools, utilities and other businesses can join the group for $500 a year and buy a seat on the board for $15,000 a year.

Baer said he wants to debate whether the county should have more control over the money it now gives the network.

"Maybe there's a third path" other than the current arrangement or a purely public model, he said. "Considering the amount of money we have going into this, it's worth an hour of our time."

Statler disputed the notion the network is not accountable to the county. The network appears regularly before council, and the county controls five of 17 seats on her organization's board, she said.

She suspects Baer's question is an effort to disrupt the county's upcoming decision on the commerce park but said she would address the issue if council wants to raise it at the retreat.

"I'm happy to have that conversation later," she said.