The city of North Charleston is sinking millions of dollars into trying to revive the old Shipwatch Square shopping center that has been moribund for years.

Mayor Keith Summey acknowledges the risks — and the unprecedented nature of the city’s foray into the world of commercial real estate.

But he said the city had little choice but to take the reins after its 15 years working with private developers didn’t pan out.

He said luring a grocery store — and a mix of other activity — is too crucial to the future health of the city’s struggling southern neighborhoods, where residents now face long bus trips or hefty cab fares to shop for food.

“That area is not going to come back unless there is a stimulus,” he said.

Today, the site at Rivers and McMillan avenues is an eyesore —a vast vacant space of dirt and asphalt surrounded by a chain link fence as it undergoes an environmental cleanup.

What might it look like in the future? Here are pictures of the best-and-worst-case scenarios the city could have on its hands.

Best case

When Pinehaven Shopping Center opened in 1959, it contained two grocery stores and several national and local retailers and quickly became one of the Lowcountry’s busiest shopping hubs.

No one expects it to return to that former glory anytime soon, but Summey said the city could declare victory if it were to lure a grocery store and other activity to the 18-acre site.

The city is negotiating with two potential grocers and would be willing to sell the site to them or build something to suit them. A lease could be structured to ensure the store’s success, he added.

Also, the activity would make the center more appealing to a private owner who would buy the site from the city, reimbursing its taxpayers on their investment.

Summey said the city, unlike a private developer, wouldn’t be looking to turn a profit —just recover its costs, which it expects will be about $6 million — plus any construction costs.

The city isn’t interested in holding onto the land long term, so in the best case, the city will be out of its venture within a few years. And the revived center in turn could trigger other redevelopment on nearby parcels, such as the vast parking lot on the former K-Mart across McMillan Avenue.

“The sooner we’re comfortable that the project has gotten on its own two feet,” Summey said, “that’s the day we know we have obtained success.”

Worst case

The city had hoped to lure a drugstore to the renovated shopping center, but its talks recently fell through.

Summey said that might be a benefit in disguise because a grocery store — the city’s real goal — would be hurt by competition for a drugstore that also sells milk, bread and other staples.

The commercial real estate business can be a tricky thing, and the city’s biggest risk is that it can’t make anything happen — and that it continues to find costly surprises.

“I’ve learned much more about dry cleaning fluid than I ever wanted to know,” Summey said, referring to a pricey phase of the current cleanup work.

While the city might get a new Cooper River Memorial Library branch at the site — plus North Charleston Housing Authority offices and even new housing — it’s unclear if that will lead to something bigger.

The city’s $6 million investment won’t necessarily force taxes up, but the question is whether the city’s involvement may actually slow its redevelopment because of bureaucracy.

City Councilman Ed Astle said he would like to see the shopping center revived but is unclear if the city can do it.

“My thought is if the guys who do this for a living can’t make it fly, how are we going to do it?” he asked. “Our specialty is government.”

Even if it takes the city a long time to recoup its investment, the project may pay political dividends earlier, as the mayor and council members will be seen as trying hard to improve the quality of life for residents in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

City Councilman Ron Brinson, who worked at Pinehaven when it first opened, said he normally wouldn’t favor risky government intervention in the market — but he does in this case. Residents without a nearby grocery store face long bus trips, high cab fares or gas bills or a worse diet.

“We have a duty to act in a responsible and rational way,” he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.