Beaufort News

County Council to attend special Lowcountry Economic Network meeting Friday

Beaufort County Council, which is considering buying an industrial park owned by the Lowcountry Economic Network for $2.5 million, has been invited to a special network board meeting Friday in Bluffton, the county and network announced Thursday.

The meeting is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. at CareCore National's executive boardroom, 400 Buckwalter Place Blvd.

The agenda includes an update on the Beaufort Commerce Park, including the status of the network's loan and a proposal from County Councilman Stu Rodman.

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

County Council, which twice previously voted to buy the park, voted Feb. 14 to postpone a final decision for 60 days so it could appraise the park and review the county's approach to economic development.

Rodman has proposed the county buy one lot for $500,000 and give it away to the first company able to move into the park and create a predetermined number of jobs, according to e-mails obtained by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

If that works, the county could then spend another $1 million to offer other lots at a discount to each of the next four companies that move in, Rodman proposed.

That scenario would cost the county a maximum of $1.5 million and could get the network's lenders much of the money they are owed. Sales of the rest of the property could cover the remainder, he said.

If the park's land can't be given away, he said, it's better for the county to find that out at a price of $500,000 than $2.5 million.

The network's lenders probably would have to sign onto the proposal, Rodman said.

In response to Rodman's proposal, Councilman Steve Baer offered an alternative: The county could solicit a professional economic-development company to retain with a renewable, one-year contract.

In an interview Thursday about his proposal, Baer suggested letting the lenders take back the park, after which the county could consider buying it at a lower price.

Baer said the county should be prepared to allocate to the firm at least $470,000 per year -- the amount he said the county would spend each year on economic development if it buys the park. The county also should be prepared to provide incentives to companies that create jobs, he said.

Baer said his approach would have two advantages.

"The incentives could be useful anywhere in the county in multiple ways and not just locked into a single, failed site," he wrote. "We would bring new, outside expertise and experience into the game and not just rely on the same old approach."

Baer said he will not attend the meeting because he has a prior commitment.