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Port Royal officials say they've become bit players in a land deal that could bring dramatic change to their town, and they say that must change.
For months, their hopes for a redeveloped and vibrant commercial and residential area at the former Port of Port Royal have risen then fallen as each new deadline for selling the property passes. They've watched the key players -- the owner of the port property, the S.C. Ports Authority, and the prospective buyers, the Port Royal Redevelopment Group -- from the sidelines.
"We need to get some sort of control back into our hands," said Port Royal Councilman Tom Klein.
The would-be buyers now have a new deadline -- Sept. 12 -- for closing the $17-million deal for the 52-acre port property, whose redevelopment could invigorate the town and add significantly to its tax base.
If the sale closes, it would mark the successful execution of a contract that has been extended four times.
But if the new -- and apparently final -- deadline comes and goes without a closing, the ports authority will again court a new buyer, as it has three times in the past three years after similar deals collapsed.
And Port Royal officials will resume their wait for what they expect will be a dynamic, new centerpiece for the town, but with less patience than before.
Klein suggested that a development agreement be created between the Ports Authority and the town that, at a minimum, requires the ports authority better maintain the abandoned port property so it appears more attractive to prospective buyers. The property is currently fenced off and largely abandoned, with overgrown weeds and plants.
He also would like to enlist local lawmakers to put pressure on the Ports Authority to make the port more of a priority, although Klein said it is a relatively small piece of land.
Councilman Joe Lee would like to see more financial safeguards to protect the town from losses incurred during the repeated planning efforts and attempted sales, such as for the town's attorney.
In its current role, Mayor Sam Murray said there's little the town can do to hasten the sale of the property.
"We've done what we're supposed to do," he said, referring to a special tax district and a development agreement the town approved with Port Royal Redevelopment Group. Both were sweeteners aimed at making the land more attractive.
Throughout the process, the Ports Authority and developers have been close-lipped about the status of negotiations, citing exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act.
"Under FOIA, a contract for sale or purchase of real estate remains exempt until the deed is signed," according to Ports Authority spokeswoman Allison Skipper.
However, the S.C. Budget and Controls Board released a contract between the Ports Authority and the development group, signed July 1, 2011, that allowed for a 30-day extension provided the development group paid a fee of $75,000.
The contract did not address additional extensions though the closing has been extended a total of four times.
The closing date has been extended twice for 30 days, with $75,000 paid by the development group each time.
The closing date was extended again for 30 days at an unknown cost; and a final time for 36 days for $50,000.
Payments have been placed in escrow and will go toward the cost of the property if the sale closes, or be forfeited to the Ports Authority if the deal falls through.
The contract also required the town to create a special tax district, whose proceeds would be used to improve roads, sewers and parks related to the project. The town would borrow the money for the improvements -- $4.5 million -- and repay it with tax revenue from rising property values around the redeveloped port.
In February, the developers asked for proof that the town had a loan for part of the $4.5 million. At the time, town manager Van Willis said, "This is the only thing that is causing the property not to close."
The town cleared that hurdle, but then word came that the development group needed more time to nail down financing to buy the property. Last month, after the third extension, the Ports Authority said it was giving the developers a fourth and final grace period to complete financing arrangements.
With the latest Sept. 12 deadline looming, the Ports Authority is already on the lookout for other buyers in case the sale doesn't close, Skipper confirmed. The property is being advertised by NAI Avant real estate firm for $20.4 million.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/EyeOnPortRoyal.