Beaufort News

Economic network to Beaufort County: Look to Jasper County for inspiration

Beaufort County officials debating whether to buy the foundering Beaufort Commerce Park should be emboldened to make the purchase after a packaging maker announced it will set up shop in Jasper County, Lowcountry Economic Network officials said Wednesday.

Last week's announcement that Be Green Packaging of Santa Barbara, Calif., will create at least 175 jobs and invest at least $7.3 million over five years at the Cypress Ridge business park near Ridgeland should "light a fire under" Beaufort County officials, said Charles Schaller, the network's secretary and a representative of Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

Jasper County won Be Green's business in part because Jasper County owns most of the Cypress Ridge park and has used grants to improve the property and construct buildings there, officials said Wednesday during the network's executive committee meeting. Such grants are only available for tracts in which a majority of the land is publicly owned, they said.

Network chairman and Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart suggested Beaufort County could have landed Be Green if it owned the commerce park, which would have allowed more leeway in courting the company.

"That company could just as well have come to Beaufort County as Jasper County," Stewart said. "However, we had nothing to offer them."

The network recruits businesses to both counties. It showed company officials several locations in the region, Be Green CEO Ron Blitzer has said.

The network bought the Beaufort Commerce Park in 2006 but can no longer afford the loan payments. It has asked Beaufort County to buy the park to save it from foreclosure. After voting twice to pay $2.5 million for it, council voted 6-4 in February to postpone a final decision for 60 days.

Stewart said elected officials must have the fortitude to invest in economic development. He said his colleagues "desperately lack" that and are "too afraid and too willing to listen to the vocal few that are out there clamoring to change it."

"What we're doing is we're holding back for generations to come the potential for Beaufort County to move forward," Stewart said. "If we do not grasp this moment, it will be future generations that are going to suffer because we did not set in motion the process to evolve and make this happen."

Beaufort County Councilman Steve Baer, a critic of the commerce park purchase, said some of his constituents argue Be Green's announcement should compel Beaufort County to buy the commerce park.

Baer, who is not a network official and did not attend Wednesday's meeting, called that argument "ridiculous." He said the ability to access grants wouldn't spark economic development if, as he suspects, the commerce park is not in an attractive spot.

"I think we should not risk the taxpayers' increasingly scarce funds on such a tenuous argument," Baer said. "I am not at all convinced the location is right and the price is right."

Beaufort County Councilman Gerald Dawson, who attended the meeting but is not a network official, said he hopes the network's efforts to recruit Be Green will prompt its critics to "stop badgering" the organization.