Slowing park purchase best for county taxpayers

The Lowcountry Economic Network's decision to seek to turn over the Beaufort Commerce Park deed to its lenders is a good move for Beaufort County taxpayers.

A rush to sell the property to Beaufort County for the full $2.5 million owed on it never made sense from the county's perspective. That's true even if you accept the premise that county ownership of the industrial park would be more likely to attract new industry to Beaufort County. Why should the county pay 2006 prices for property in 2011, except as a favor to the network or the consortium of five banks who loaned $2.9 million to buy the property in 2006?

Even though the network first approached the county about purchasing the property a year ago, it wasn't until January that a sale was put on the fast track. That's after the county unsuccessfully sought to pay no more than $1.5 million for it. The negative reaction to a $2.5 million purchase should not have surprised the council. Too many questions were left unanswered to warrant what is probably a premium price for this unsuccessful industrial park, including the network's specific plans for marketing the property going forward.

Many of the questions still remain unanswered. The council's decision Feb. 14 to delay for 60 days a third and final vote on the purchase and to review the county's overall economic development approach was welcome. The fact that we're now talking about the network's turning over the deed in lieu of foreclosure and negotiating a lower price with the banks makes it clear the county was moving too fast on the purchase.

Now the council should resolve to make no purchase decision before that review is completed -- even if that comes after the 60 days is up. The industrial park issue is just one piece of the economic development puzzle, and it should not be dealt with in isolation. And given that County Council Chairman Weston Newton only appointed a committee of five business people to take up that review on Feb. 24, an April vote on buying the property might still be rushing things. A new, independent appraisal of the property should come before the 60 days is up, county administrator Gary Kubic has said.

The network board also was smart to express "enthusiastic support" of the county's plan to review its economic development approach at its Feb. 25 meeting. As we've stated before, network officials should welcome the opportunity to discuss their efforts and set new goals and priorities. In fact, they are obliged to do it, given their reliance on taxpayer support from Beaufort County and the other government entities that participate in the network, including the towns of Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and Port Royal and the city of Beaufort.

The people appointed to the review committee are Joe Fraser, president of Fraser Construction; Richard Gray, founder of Grayco; Gary Horn, market president of Coastal Banking Co.; Don Ryan, CEO of CareCore National, who sits on the network board; and David Tigges, CEO of the McNair Law Firm and chairman of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, which also has a seat on the network board.

We expect a very thorough and public review of the network's activities over the past decade and a very public discussion about economic development in general. The review should include detailed financial reports for the 10 years the economic development group has existed and a thorough accounting of jobs created as a direct result of its efforts.

We might be getting a lot for our money, but until we have more information, we won't know for sure.