Beaufort News

Network chief questions county's commitment to economic development

The Lowcountry Economic Network's leader on Wednesday called Beaufort County's decision to postpone a vote on whether to buy the Beaufort Commerce Park for $2.5 million "a complete diversion" that suggests the County Council isn't serious about economic development.

Kim Statler, executive director of the public-private nonprofit group formed to recruit business to the region, said the council's failure to act quickly makes her wonder about its will.

"If Beaufort County does not want to do economic development, then I have to accept that and move on," Statler said.

Statler said she feels she has no choice but to focus on working with the network's other members because the county doesn't appear interested.

"The county has pretty much spoken," she said.

The network, which bought the park in 2006 with an interest-only loan but can no longer get such favorable financing, has asked the county to buy the property to keep the lenders from foreclosing.

The council, which twice previously voted to buy the park, on Monday voted 6-4 toput off a third and final vote for 60 days so the property can be reappraised and the council can review the county's economic development efforts. Monday's vote came after nearly two hours of public comments.

Administrator Gary Kubic said the county staff is seeking an appraiser familiar with industrial sites.

"We're probably going to look outside our area so that we can bring in a fresh pair of eyes to look at this without having any interest one way or another," Kubic said.

Kubic estimated the appraisal will cost $5,000 to $10,000. He wants it done a few weeks before the 60-day period expires so people can digest the results.

Network officials say C.S. McCall & Co. of Mount Pleasant appraised the park in August 2009 for $3.75 million, a value reached before the network completed a stormwater system and other improvements.

Newton, who made the motion Monday to delay the vote on buying the property, said the county will assemble an ad hoc task force of perhaps seven to nine people to reassess the county's approach to economic development. The group probably would include both council members and representatives of sectors such as finance, utilities and law, Newton said.

Newton said he wanted to delay the vote so the council can examine how other communities recruit business and decide if the county should adjust the model, structure or funding of its efforts.

Supporters of the proposed purchase say it would enhance the county's ability to lure high-paying jobs to the park, which they say the network has primed for new business. They also say governments commonly buy such property to provide businesses with free or discounted land.

Opponents question why the county should invest in property that has sat mostly empty for years.

Newton said he wants the county to recruit more new business than it has since the network formed a decade ago to replace a county economic development department.

He pointed to the common contention that the county's regulations discourage businesses from moving to the area. If that's true, Newton asked, why should the county give the network about $270,000 a year to recruit prospective companies?

"If we're serious about economic development, we ought to embrace this opportunity to see how we can do things perhaps differently but better," Newton said.

Statler said she is puzzled about why the council is embarking on a debate now. She said the network's staff is already assessing the region's economic development deficiencies, and she has said many council members supported in previous debates the county's approach to economic development.

The county's sudden reticence about the commerce park has left her wondering if courting business is in Beaufort County's "DNA."

"I don't get the feeling the partnership is real," she said.

Staff writer Kyle Peterson contributed to this report.