The State Ports Authority is once again retooling its plan to sell its long-mothballed former marine terminal in Beaufort County.
The change comes as the agency faces criticism that the languishing Port of Port Royal site is standing in the way of the economic revival of the surrounding area.
A local nonprofit, the Santa Elena Foundation, wants to buy part of the Battery Creek property for an interpretive center marking an early European settlement.
In January, the foundation submitted a proposal to the SPA to buy less than 4 acres for $1.2 million or a fair assessed value. The group said the deal would "increase economic development and tourism by promoting the historic and cultural significance of Santa Elena," according to correspondence obtained by The Post and Courier.
The offer was rejected Feb. 7 after a review with SPA board chair Bill Stern. The SPA said it wanted to sell the 52 acres of high land and the rest of the 317-acre waterfront property in one transaction. It also said the foundation's bid was too low, according to the correspondence.
Since then, the agency has changed its mind about breaking up the site. It said Monday it is now willing to divide it into three parcels.
Richard Stewart, treasurer of the Santa Elena Foundation, said Monday that the SPA's inability to sell the land over the past nine years has hurt property values and held back Port Royal's economy.
"This area has suffered for years because one of its prime properties has been locked behind a fence," he said.
The issue is drawing attention in Columbia. Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, and Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, are preparing companion bills that would seek to force the SPA to move faster, according to a report in The Beaufort Gazette.
The bills could be filed as early as Tuesday. They would allow the SPA to subdivide the property so that it could be sold piecemeal on the theory that buyers would have less difficulty getting loans for smaller portions of the property than for all of it, according to the report.
The bills also would allow the land to be sold for 80 percent of the appraised value. They would require the SPA to sell it by June 30, 2015, or auction it off, according to the draft.
The General Assembly ordered the small port closed in 2004. The SPA put the land up for sale in 2005, and it's been trying to sell it ever since.
The aftermath of the last recession hurt those efforts.
The most recent proposed buyer was Port Royal Development Group, but it had trouble getting financing for its $17 million bid. It received four extensions before the final deadline passed in September 2012.
At that time, the SPA said it would have the site reappraised and put it back on the block. It also hired a firm to clean up the property.
Three different groups have tried to buy it for residential and commercial uses since then.
The SPA has hired Columbia-based real estate firm NAI Avant to market the site. The last asking price was $20.4 million.
Stern, the SPA chairman, referred questions to Erin Pabst, a spokeswoman for the agency. Pabst provided a written statement saying the SPA's decisions about Port Royal property are for the good of the state and local community.
The authority also said it has reversed course about selling the land as a single parcel.
"The tract, previously listed as one piece of property, will be marketed again as three parcels, and the foundation and other members of the public are free to discuss and obtain information on the property from NAI Avant," according to the statement.
Stewart said the foundation will meet Thursday and decide what it intends to do. He said it's unfair that the SPA won't let the group see the latest appraisal.
Pabst defended the withholding of that information.
"Port Royal is active property for sale, the (Ports Authority) cannot release the appraisal," she said.
Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 or twitter.com/tyrichardsonPC.
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