Despite disappointment, port opportunity remains

The town of Port Royal might have some time on its hands before its greatest land asset changes owners.

It must use that time wisely.

A new setback in the effort to sell the mothballed Port of Port Royal is disappointing. The process that began six years ago when then-Gov. Mark Sanford ordered the port closed and the property sold now grinds on, years after its first strong suitor fell through.

Now it has happened again. Some might have felt as if they were jilted at the altar when Gramling Brothers Real Estate and Development of Charleston missed a Jan. 18 deadline to make a $50,000 payment to keep its bid alive.

Mayor Sam Murray said if Gramling Brothers and the State Ports Authority are unable to work anything out, "it's probably going to be a long time before we get another buyer."

For Port Royal, the stakes could not be higher. What happens to the 51-acre tract will define the town's future. Right now, the unsightly tract, with its high chain-link fences, locked gates and empty buildings, seems to mock the dreams and hopes of the town's residents.

But what was once a thriving, natural deep-water port could be a jewel of a development, featuring homes, businesses and parks.

For that to work, the port property must be handled correctly. Enough questions and issues have been raised recently for the town to put this new down-time to good use.

Neither the town nor the State Ports Authority should sell itself short. The property is unlike almost any other available today, anywhere. It offers beautiful water and marsh vistas. It is part of a quaint and eclectic town with a strong sense of place, an inviting main street, a Norman Rockwell-like public elementary school and the Wardle Family YMCA. It is convenient to medical and higher education institutions. It has one of the deepest histories of any community in North America to match its modern planning efforts.

The disappointment should not be turned into a fire sale. In fact, the town should turn this setback into a gain. It should square away how much open space the new owners must commit to, what type of open space that is and where it is. This was a major issue in the most recent deal.

The Ports Authority must come to grips with whether and how to offer the property for sale in phases and make the same terms available to all bidders. Town residents should renew their involvement in the planning and know the details, as well as the overall goals. A proposed marina must be talked about in greater detail.

Everyone involved should be realistic about today's market. But this is a job that must be done right. The port site remains a grand and rare opportunity for something spectacular.