County right to review economic development

If Beaufort County Council is to be criticized for being dilatory, it should be for waiting so long to review the county's economic development approach, a public-private partnership that started a decade ago.

The council should not be criticized for delaying a vote on buying the Beaufort Commerce Park until after that review, as well as an independent appraisal of the property.

And its hesitancy on buying the industrial park from the Lowcountry Economic Network for about $2.5 million -- the amount owed on the property -- should not be construed as a lack of commitment toward economic development. The approximately $270,000 a year the county has paid to the group would indicate otherwise.

In truth, harder questions and more information should have been asked when the park property was purchased for $2.9 million in 2006 and again when the county was approached about buying it last March, after the network failed to renegotiate its interest-only loan. (The county certainly should have sought an independent appraisal then.) Or the council could have done it two years ago, when Kim Statler, the network's executive director, says she came to the county about concerns that property intended for a public purpose had private financing.

The county didn't force the network into the purchase in 2006.

Statler's contention that the delay on the purchase signals that Beaufort County doesn't support economic development does not serve her organization. The council has voted twice to buy the park. Last Monday, it voted 6-4 to put off a third and final vote.

Her statement, posted on the network's website, that the Feb. 14 vote leads her to believe a majority of County Council doesn't view job creation as a top priority and that the vote is a step backward for the county and the region seems hyperbolic. Surely, the council can pause to get more information and review its overall approach to economic development without being labeled "anti-business."

Statler seems convinced she has a good case to make for her group and its efforts. If that's true, she can make it today or 60 days from now.

If the property goes to foreclosure in the meantime, that might be unfortunate for the banks and for the network, but why should it be the death knell for economic development in Beaufort County?

The network should stand ready to answer any and all questions, given the public funding it receives. Statler, who according to the group's tax filings earned $96,800 in fiscal year 2009, should know that public funding comes with certain responsibilities, and answering questions about your activities and productivity is one of them. If the network never got another dime from a public-supported entity, it would still be accountable for its past efforts.

If, as Statler and others have suggested, Beaufort County should change how it works for economic development, then the review before the next park purchase vote is the chance to convince the council and taxpayers of Beaufort County.

The network should welcome the opportunity. If not, it should stop taking the county's money, and it certainly shouldn't ask the county to rescue it from an ill-fated land deal.