MONCKS CORNER -- Berkeley County is considering borrowing money to buy the financially struggling Carolina Nurseries property.
If the sale goes through, the county would offer the owner the opportunity to continue to operate the sprawling plant business along U.S. Highway 52 as a tenant, Supervisor Dan Davis said Monday.
"This is not a bailout," Davis said. "The county would own the property."
A public auction of the 686-acre property is set for Friday.
County Council has scheduled a special meeting at 7 tonight to give second-reading approval to borrow up to $16.75 million for the purchase.
"This is just a possibility," Davis said.
Davis called the nursery and its 250 jobs a longtime industry, but he added that the county would consider buying the property even if the owner did not stay in business.
"It's a prime location for economic development -- with rail, water, sewer and roads," he said.
Nursery President J. Guy welcomed the opportunity to keep the nearly century-old operation from withering away.
"I think it would be great news for the community and employees and the county," Guy said. "We'd love to stay in business."
Last month, ZZ Acquisitions LLC, an affiliate of North Charleston-based business and industry conglomerate Intertech Group, bid $12 million for the property, the amount it loaned Carolina Nurseries in March 2009 to keep it in business.
"We stepped in and loaned them the money when no banks were willing to," said Robert Johnston, executive vice president of the Intertech Group. "We wanted to keep the operation running and make a profit on our investment. If all else failed, we would be happy to own the land."
As the nursery business wilted during the deep recession, Carolina Nurseries was unable to repay the loan.
The massive plant business won a 90-day reprieve in June when a public auction of its more than 5 million shrubs was stopped on the third day. The lender who called in the loan agreed that bidders from as far away as Canada were snapping up plants at fire-sale prices, and the auction was not producing the expected revenue.
Johnston made it clear that ZZ Acquisitions has no interest in operating a nursery, and he called the possible county bid good news for everyone.
"If they come to the auction and they are the successful bidder, we would be very, very happy," Johnston said. "If they keep it operating, that would be fantastic."
Davis said the county might not need all $16.75 million to buy the nursery. "That's just the upper limit," he said.
Johnston said part of the county's bid will help satisfy ZZ Acquisitions' collateral of machinery, equipment and inventory at the nursery.
If the county wins the bid, the court would require 5 percent of the bid price immediately and the rest within 30 days. Davis said the money Friday would come from the county's economic development fund.
He also said the rent amount has not been negotiated but that if the nursery does not want to pay rent to stay there, the county wants to make sure the property is used for industrial development.
Nearly 575 acres of the nursery are zoned for agricultural use. The northern end of the property is zoned for heavy industry, but it is used to grow plants.
Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or Warren Wise at 937-5524.