Officials shouldn't clam up on public help for projects

Once again, Bluffton Town Council has been treated to a presentation on a multimillion-dollar development proposal, punctuated by a request for a "public-private" partnership to make the deal work.

Once again, details of such a partnership are left to our collective imagination.

This most recent proposal is a $78 million health care facility to be built in the vicinity of Bluffton Parkway and S.C. 170. It would include a 32-bed long-term acute care hospital, a 24-bed inpatient rehabilitation hospital, a 22-bed geriatric psychiatric hospital and a 120-bed skilled nursing facility.

Elizabeth Lamkin, CEO of PACE Healthcare Commons and former president of Hilton Head Regional Health Care and Hilton Head Hospital, said the facility has received the state licensing required for the skilled nursing facility and the psychiatric hospital. It is still seeking licensing for the two hospitals.

PACE Healthcare also continues to seek financing.

Lamkin and town officials declined to discuss how the town and the company might partner in the deal.

Past dealings with other companies could be instructive. The town gave CareCore National, a health benefits management company, land for its buildings at Buckwalter Place. In 2005, federal and state grants brought in $950,000 to pay for roads and water and sewer services at Buckwalter Place. Beaufort County kicked in $1 million. Palmetto Electric Cooperative donated $600,000 to the project. The town pledged $1.25 million.

The state also offered the company a $2.5 million tax credit spread over 10 years based on the number of employees hired.

In 2009, a developer of a proposed $80 million project asked Bluffton to sell revenue bonds to finance the project. It, too, is slated for Buckwalter Place. Under the proposal, the town would finance, own and lease the entertainment complex that would include a culinary school, a 196-room hotel, a medical facility and a conference center.

In December 2009, the town and the developer agreed to study the project's feasibility. Town manager Anthony Barrett says the viability study is on hold while the developer works on a project in Ohio. When the company is ready to move on the project here, the town will vet financial information the company provides and get the company to host a community education program.

Town officials promised transparency, and they should deliver it on this and other proposals througout the negotiating process.

Economic development deals, even when fat with public-sponsored incentives, often are shrouded in secrecy until after they are consummated. But public officials should not hesitate to talk about what they see as the public's role in a for-profit company's venture.

What does PACE Healthcare want from taxpayers? What would taxpayers get in return? Why can't the project be financed through private capital markets?

Those questions shouldn't be hard to answer -- in detail and in public.