Beaufort’s Commerce Park still adrift in the doldrums


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By BILL RAUCH

You know you’re writing a story the government doesn’t want to see in print when you ask the Beaufort City Man ager to provide you with some city expenditures, and the next day you get an email from the City Attorney saying the government wants $87/hr. for researching the information. The City Attorney’s hourly rate is about twice $87/hr.

That’s the first chapter of this story.

Did I pay?

No. The numbers here are all public information in the sense they have been published here or elsewhere and not refuted, or that they are tucked away in the city’s website. I dug them out myself, and in one case with the help of my friend, another former Beaufort mayor, David Taub.

Here’s the story. And it is easy to see why the government doesn’t want it told.

The City of Beaufort paid $1.8million, much of which it borrowed, to purchase The Beaufort Commerce  Park out by the Air Station now seven years ago. The City has now paid an additional quarter of a million dollars in interest payments to finance the borrowed portion of the purchase price. 

Moreover the city has paid for paving, streetlights, electrical upgrades, sewer, gas availability, and broadband access for the park, capital expenditures that taken together exceed $150,000. 

In addition, the city has paid to maintain the Commerce Park (mowing, policing, signage etc) out of its operating budget, costs that are difficult to break out but which certainly exceed $50,000 over the past seven years.
So that’s altogether an easy $2,250,000 the City has in the park.

Now, given that Mayor Keyserling’s stated purpose for purchasing the park in 2012 was to create jobs, as the government puts the finishing touches on its upcoming budget what has the city got to show after seven years for those dollars? How’s the return on investment (ROI) looking?

According to materials furnished by the Beaufort County Economic Development Corporation, there are two businesses currently operating out of the park: Oliver’s Bush-hogging and Clean Burning which together employ 16, and Limuli Laboratories that employs three people full-time and 12 seasonally. Oliver opened up in 2005, and Limuli arrived after the city took ownership.

The unpleasant reality is therefore that the city’s move to buy the 158 acre park seven years ago has resulted in there being three new full-time jobs at the park. To be brutally businesslike about it, it is fair to say therefore that the three Limuli jobs have come at the cost to the city’s taxpayers of $775,000 each.

Oh yes, there are nowadays, as there have always been, prospects. I remember four years ago my friend Beaufort City Councilwoman Donnie Beer saying when she was running for re-election: “You have to be patient.”

The ROI could change. Or of course it could get worse. But now there’s broadband. Now there’s sewer. Under a new federal law now 60 percent of the park is a South Carolina Opportunity Zone, meaning that under some circumstances capital gains taxes can be sheltered by investing there.

And, yes, there are investors interested in investing there, according to Beaufort County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director John O’Toole. O’Toole has, for example an investor standing by to build a 50,000 sq. ft. spec building in the park, if Beaufort County will provide him with sufficient Incentives. He has a couple of other — undoubtedly Opportunity Zone — investors on the line too, he says. If anyone can pull the city’s bacon out of the fire, it’s O’Toole.

But these would be buildings being built to shelter taxes. They are not employers standing by to move jobs into the park.

The employers, the recent record shows, seem often to prefer Bluffton where incidentally there is another spec building poised to request incentives from the county.

“How many spec buildings should we be building?” one county councilman asked last week. “I didn’t know we were even in that business.”

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.