After listening to residents' comments for nearly two hours, Beaufort County Council voted 6-4 on Monday to postpone its final decision on whether to spend $2.5 million to buy the Beaufort Commerce Park.
Council Chairman Weston Newton proposed delaying the vote until April 15 so the 165-acre property could be appraised and council members could review the county's economic development efforts.
The Lowcountry Economic Network, the county's public-private job-recruiting partner, bought the Beaufort Commerce Park with a loan in 2006, but it can no longer afford the debt and has asked the county to buy the park. County Council approved the purchase in two previous readings and scheduled its final vote for Monday.
Those voting to delay the purchase characterized it as a prudent move given the gravity of the decision.
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Councilman Rick Caporale said the property's value should be appraised to determine it's current worth.
"It's so clearly demanded by the people that we serve," he said, of those who have questioned the property's value.
The four members who voted against delay said it was a political move unlikely to change any minds.
Councilman Bill McBride said he was taken aback by the motion.
"I think this might be a time-delayed killing tactic," he said.
Newton said he proposed the 60-day delay period to give County Council the opportunity to get the answers to all its questions. The five banks that issued the debt might foreclose on the property -- the outstanding loan amount came due in January -- but Newton said the foreclosure process would take time.
Councilman Stu Rodman suggested the network might file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to reorganize. "What it really means is that you're seeking protection of the federal courts against the lenders to provide time to work out the details," Rodman said.
Before the vote, about 35 speakers expressed their support or opposition to the proposal.
Jon Rembold, representing Lowcountry Economic Network member Ward Edwards, said the investment is justified. He noted that the county's Rural and Critical Lands program, which buys land to protect it from development, has bought about $90 million worth of property and has popular support.
Network director Kim Statler said she wanted to dispel the notion that the group simply "fell on hard times and dumped this in the county's lap last-minute."
"That couldn't be farther from the truth," Statler said. "Two years ago I approached the county and said, 'We have a piece of property with a public purpose, and we have private financing, and as my partner, I'm coming to you to say I'm really concerned about that.' "
Dean Moss, who helped with the park's purchase in 2006, stated the need for economic development.
"We've got the lowest wage rates in the state," he said. "We've got the highest reliance on the residential property tax of any county in South Carolina. And we have one of the highest school dropout rates."
Moss urged council to take a long view of the purchase.
"This is not about tomorrow," he said. "This is about the next 10 years in this county."
Charlie Marshall, a partner in a Yemassee commerce park, said the county needs to perform its due diligence in studying the property before making a decision. He said buying the park will not fix Beaufort County's jobs problem.
"The problem that you have in Beaufort County is an educational problem," he said.
Ann Ubelis, a member of the Beaufort TEA Party, said she could not find recent financial data for the network on its website.
"This is not the transparency that taxpayers are demanding, nor within the spirit of the law," Ubelis said, "especially when the LEN receives $270,000 a year from the taxpayers in this county."
Others, such as former County Councilman Gary Fordham, opposed the project on philosophical grounds.
"A government has no business being in economic development," he said. "They're going to screw things up."