Charleston County Council’s monumental failure to revive the old Naval Hospital in North Charleston as a hub for county services and a spur of neighborhood revitalization is no secret. But two bids to buy the hospital are.
That shouldn’t be the case.
On Monday, The Post and Courier reported that county officials had received two bids for the defunct property, which would still require major renovations to be usable. But the details of those offers will not be made public unless County Council decides to move forward with a sale.
Secrecy during a contract negotiation like this is relatively common for local governments. Nevertheless, the troubled history of the county’s involvement in the Naval Hospital merits greater transparency.
Through a series of spectacularly poor decisions, a property that cost North Charleston just $2 million a few years ago became a $33 million burden on Charleston County taxpayers after county officials settled a lawsuit last year with developers in charge of renovating and leasing the property for county services, among other uses.
For that investment, county residents ended up with a useless building. Estimates suggested that finishing renovations could cost more than $66 million.
Some estimates suggest the county could build an entirely new facility for about half that cost, so it made sense to try to sell the property, even at a tremendous loss. Last month, County Council voted not to proceed with renovations.
Certainly, it’s important that County Council get as much money for the property as possible, to try to cut taxpayer losses. But it’s also critical that a buyer for the site proceed with plans that can benefit a long-overlooked part of North Charleston.
City officials have fought for years to get a grocery store near the Naval Hospital site, for example. The last full-service grocery store in the area closed more than a decade ago. So far, not a single major chain has been willing to open in southern North Charleston, which is officially considered a food desert, even after offers of major subsidies.
It’s an unfortunate chicken-and-egg scenario. Investors have been unwilling to take a risk in the area, despite its central location and convenient access to transit and major roads, without such basic services as a grocery store. And a grocery store won’t open without a broader customer base.
Whatever happens with the Naval Hospital should help push the surrounding community in the right direction. And county and North Charleston officials should work together to make sure that revitalization benefits long-term residents rather than pushing them out.
In other words, there’s more at stake in the Naval Hospital property than the recovery of taxpayer dollars. And given County Council’s dismal record in making choices for the property’s future, it’s crucial that the public know what is on the table.