Port Royal must pass on chance to buy port

We would like to believe that a new proposal by the S.C. State Ports Authority to sell the Port of Port Royal to the town of Port Royal is proof of the agency's increasing sense of urgency to finally unload the property.

But even if that is the case, the proposal is a nonstarter, and the town should reject it.

Town of Port Royal officials -- including the town manager, mayor and two council members -- traveled March 19 to Charleston to the authority's annual meeting to talk about the possibility.

"We'd prefer the fate of the town to be in our hands than theirs at this point," said town manager Van Willis.

The 317-acre waterfront property has sat dormant -- and off the town's tax rolls -- for so long that the sentiment Willis expresses is perfectly understandable.

But the reality of the situation is equally understandable: Port Royal's borrowing capacity tops out at about $2.1 million. And although the Ports Authority has expressed willingness to come down from the most recent appraisal of $22.5 million, its leader has said it would not finance a sale or parcel away the property piecemeal.

Thus, the town would almost certainly have to levy a back-breaking tax increase to finance the remainder of the purchase price.

Further, the completion of that transaction would merely mark the start of the town's burden. The property would need to be marketed and sold, duties the Ports Authority has far greater wherewithal to perform.

No government should eagerly cast itself in the role of land broker or real estate developer, least of all those with budgets and staffs as small as the town of Port Royal's.

True, the town might prove to be a more motivated seller, but that only makes it more likely that it would bargain away land and tax breaks at a net loss to the populace. If there is to be a loss on the sale, it is the Ports Authority that should incur it.

After all, the property belongs to the Ports Authority, and it is the Ports Authority that has been commanded by the General Assembly to sell it. A deal with the town meets this obligation only ostensibly; in practice, it shifts the burden to a municipality ill-equipped to accept it.

Bills in both houses of the legislature, designed to force the Ports Authority to sell the property at auction if it cannot sell it soon on the open market, hold far better promise for Port Royal's interests.

Therefore, the town's response to the proposal should be: We appreciate the offer, but we're not in the market for pigs in a poke.