MOUNT PLEASANT -- The chairman of Patriots Point's board lashed out Tuesday at lawmakers threatening to take property from the maritime museum over a $9 million government loan used to repair the warship Laffey.
"Quite frankly, those members of the legislature that want to come down here and be the caretakers of the Yorktown or the Laffey or any of this land, if they want to plow it and put it into tomatoes, whatever they want to do to satisfy debt, I am welcoming here with the key to the city," Patriots Point Development Authority Chairman Ray Chandler said.
"But until they decide to get their good sense on and let good people make this place work, we're going to go about our business and I'm not getting on I-26, putting my hat in my hand for anybody up there, and I'm not going to be threatened by any blog, any treasurer, any senator that is going to demagogue and grandstand on the backs of (Patriots Point executive director) Mac Burdette, this staff, your board or ours."
Chandler's remarks came at the end of a joint meeting with the Patriots Point Foundation Board, a nonprofit fundraising group for the maritime museum. The board was reporting the status of a study to increase the prominence and attendance of the tourist attraction. That report should be finished by December, foundation Chairman Bob Simons said.
The Patriots Point board asked for the meeting to smooth over any friction between the two agencies, Chandler said.
During the discussion, Patriots Point board member Eddie Taylor asked Simons if the foundation would be able to raise $9 million to pay back the Laffey loan, because Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, has threatened to take some of Patriots Point's property if the attraction didn't pay it back within two years.
Simons said, "No," and added, "but if we have a plan, maybe we can buy some time."
Patriots Point officials have said they continue to chip away at the debt and hope to return the Laffey to its berth beside the USS Yorktown by the end of the year, if all goes as planned, Burdette said.
Patriots Point recently sent about $500,000 to the state, raised $136,000 during the Fourth of July celebration and hopes to increase revenue by about $200,000 this budget year, which began July 1, over last year, Chandler said.
"We've got two years, about 22 months, my clock is ticking, to go back to the state in good faith, and we're going to do that," he said.
Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell said Tuesday he was unclear why Chandler chose now to blast lawmakers and others, but he remains confident that the current Patriots Point board is doing everything it can to repay the loan and position the maritime museum for the future.
"I've been clear all along that it can be no bailout by the taxpayers," the Charleston Republican said. "I'm hopeful they will keep their focus on making Patriots Point work. If they do that, then the issue of the loan will be easy to resolve. Patriots Point is too valuable an asset to let it get bogged down at this point."
The state Joint Bond Review Committee agreed in April to extend the loan to Patriots Point, and Leatherman said at the time that he believes the state will recoup its money or it will end up with valuable waterfront property.
He did not return calls for comment Tuesday in response to Chandler's remarks.
Neither did Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, who opposed the loan to Patriots Point, saying the state most likely would not get its money back.
Patriots Point accepted the state loan for emergency repairs to the Laffey in the summer of 2009, after the World War II ship sprang some 100 leaks and seemed poised to sink into Charleston Harbor if a major storm hit.
The ship, now restored, remains docked at a private industrial site in the Neck Area.
Patriots Point paid $125,000 for a mooring structure and continues to foot a $11,250-rent bill per month to Shipyard Creek Associates to house the ship. The agency expects to receive proposals in August to bring the Laffey home.
At the same time it faces $80 million to $100 million for maintenance and repair work on its aging main attraction, the aircraft carrier Yorktown. The agency hopes to redevelop some of its prime real estate to generate an income stream that would help support its mission.
Chandler, in a later joint meeting with Mount Pleasant Town Council on Tuesday, readily conceded that the attraction has significant hurdles, but he believes they can be overcome.
"We have huge, deep, daunting financial challenges," he said. "But we will refund the repairs. We will pay that back. ... We are going to meet the challenges of Patriots Point and the town of Mount Pleasant with shining success over the next decade."
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524.