SPA's unwarranted secrecy

The State Ports Authority building on Concord Street has a potential buyer.

Clarification: A story on April 27 and an editorial on April 28 about the sale of the State Ports Authority headquarters and adjacent property need clarification. The Post and Courier contends it is entitled under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act to review all 12 purchase offers after the sale is finalized, not before.

The State Ports Authority is brewing another public controversy on the Charleston peninsula by withholding information about the sale of its Concord Street property on the Cooper River.

South Carolina law requires the state agency to reveal that information. The Freedom of Information Act recognizes that the public has a right to know all the details about the sale of this piece of publicly owned property.

Wednesday's announcement that Lowe Enterprises is the would-be purchaser doesn't fulfill the responsibility for public disclosure.

People need to see the dozen bids that were made for the premium harborfront property and the terms of the sale. That's how the state and the city handle property sales. And that's how the SPA handles bids for project work. It's meant to ensure that the process is aboveboard and in the public's best interest.

Indeed, in documents sent to all bidders, the SPA board said they “may be subject to disclosure under the provisions of the [state's] Freedom of Information Act.”

This sale does not have its own set of rules.

The city of Charleston needs to insist that the SPA open the process to scrutiny. The future use of the SPA property as a luxury hotel is certain to have an impact on the fragile, crowded and historic peninsula's quality of life. The city needs to be well informed so that it can be a tough negotiator on behalf of citizens.

Lowe Enterprises paid $750,000 in earnest money Wednesday toward the final price, which is reported to be at least $40 million. Lowe will have 120 days to inspect the property and make sure its plans are compatible with city guidelines. Then it will have another 30 days in which to close the deal.

Those guidelines, of course, govern the plan's size, scale and height, its architecture and its impact on the community as assessed by the city's regulatory committees and boards.

But the city also is holding a trump card: Parking spaces used by the SPA in a city garage across the street. The SPA expects the city to make them available to Lowe, or another purchaser. But the city can name its price, and the figure it sets could have a lot to do with how happy the city is with Lowe's plan.

The Coastal Conservation League's director, Dana Beach, says that the public needs to be involved in this process now — and should have been before this.

Mayor John Tecklenburg has already set up a meeting for next Wednesday to brief and receive input from nearby neighborhood associations. And he has offered to host meetings including the prospective purchaser and stakeholders, like neighbors and preservationists.

Nothing is set in stone yet.

While the zoning allows the hotel to have 225 rooms, that won't necessarily be the project's final number. Clearly, a hotel with even half that number of rooms would change traffic numbers and patterns in the already congested area. It is reasonable to expect the SPA and the city to conduct new, comprehensive studies to determine whether old plans for Union Pier and the cruise terminal, for example, are suitable. And those plans should be accessible to the public.

The more secretive the SPA is, the more likely residents will look askance at the state agency's plans. And the more likely they are to be resistant to this sale and to hotel plans.

Simply put, the city and its residents should be fully informed. The SPA should start doing the public's business in public.