Beaufort News

Board of beleaguered economic network could decide its fate this week

The Lowcountry Economic Network's board could decide Wednesday whether to dissolve and, if so, how that would unfold, network officials say.

"My assumption is that the network will agree to shut down -- I don't know the details," said Dick Stewart, network board member.

The network's future was left in limbo after Beaufort County Council decided not to buy the Beaufort Commerce Park to relieve the organization's $2.5 million debt on the property. Network officials say it can no longer afford to make payments on money it borrowed to buy the park.

Network executive director Kim Statler said last month she was looking for a new buyer for the park, but no prospect has emerged.

"There's been no movement," Statler said Thursday.

The group of five banks holding the network's debt has not accepted the park's offer to take over the property in lieu of foreclosing. Nor have the banks dropped their request for a deficiency judgment, which could compel the network to pay the difference should an auction of the park not raise enough money to pay off the debt.

It's unclear where the foreclosure process stands. Online court records indicate the last filing was April 20. Statler said the network has not been notified of a hearing schedule.

Meanwhile, all five of the network's employees remain on the job.

"They will be employed until the organization shuts down," Statler said.

ALLIANCE TO STEP IN?

The Lowcountry Economic Alliance, a regional group created by Beaufort and Jasper counties, is not tied to the commerce-park debt and might pick up some of the network's work if the organization shuts down.

"I think if it's handled properly, we'll be able to maintain the momentum that we have and not lose any of the projects," said Gregg Malphrus, alliance board chairman. "It's a delicate balance, and it's going to take a lot of work by all the people involved to make sure that doesn't happen."

County Councilman Jerry Stewart, who serves on both network and alliance boards, said the county needs to maintain continuity with businesses the groups are trying to lure to the area.

But that plan presents challenges. For example, the alliance does not have its own employees, Statler said. Both counties pitch in to run the organization, but Beaufort County's contribution is in the form of network staff time.

It's not clear, Malphrus said, how the county would participate without the network.

"Things are very uncertain," Stewart said. "What we're doing right now is seeking counsel and advice as to what we need to be doing."

COUNTY FUNDING

The network, known until 2007 as the Greater Beaufort-Hilton Head Economic Partnership, has received about $270,000 each year from Beaufort County since 2001, when it was founded to replace a county economic development department.

In the county's draft budget for next fiscal year, $150,000 is allocated for economic development.

County administrator Gary Kubic described the budget item as a placeholder that can be adjusted up or down as the future of economic development takes shape.

"A placeholder is put in the budget for the following reasons: We know there's going to be a change; unfortunately, what it will be cannot be determined within my budgetary time factors," Kubic said. "The number itself is not indicative of anything other than economic development in the broadest sense."

He added that the $150,000 could be used to pay for a variety of initiatives, including those advanced by County Council's economic development task force, which has said it will recommend a $50,000 study of the county's economic development efforts.

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