Amidst our criticism -- as well as praise -- of how Kershaw County Council has conducted itself recently, we do not want to lose site of one thing: The Central South Carolina MegaSite in Lugoff is an important asset, perhaps the most important, in Kershaw County’s attempts to land a major industry to operate here. It is certainly the largest. As such, we support efforts to make that happen.
However, we do not do so blindly.
We don’t pretend to know whether or not it makes sense for the county, as we reported Friday, to extend its option on the approximately 1,400-acre site for another five years. After all, it was experts the county invited to an economic development summit in mid-January who said the county needed to take control of the property, and sooner rather than later. Perhaps, extending the option and moving forward on making improvements is “taking control.”
One thing we should not kid ourselves about is the benefit the landowners are receiving in exchange for agreeing to extend that option.
In late January, Kershaw County Administrator Vic Carpenter said that minimal improvements conducted up to that point did not represent a “quid pro quo” (a favor for a favor) between the landowners and the county in order to agree on previous extensions of the option.
As of March 12, that is no longer true in our eyes. That’s the date the new option went into effect. Council voted favorably on that agreement on Feb. 26, on a motion from Councilman Sammie Tucker that read: “Upon receipt of a signed option extension for the Central South Carolina MegaSite in question, we authorize the staff to engage with Alliance Consulting Engineers to accomplish all engineering studies and permitting processes, as have been presented to council tonight, for the sum not to exceed $1.13 million, with the net county portion not to exceed $800,000.”
The option agreement itself specifically refers to the county’s pending expenditure.
This means that the landowners will have up to $1.13 million in work, with $800,000 of that coming from county taxpayers, performed on their property in exchange for extending the option to 2024.
Let’s tell it like it is: that is certainly quid pro quo.
Let us also not forget that the option now requires the county to purchase the entire site, not merely the 100-acre portion it has earmarked for improvement. During the first two years, it would have to do so for $21,000 per acre, or more than $28 million. During the last three years, the price per acre would increase to $22,000, or around $29.5 million.
The $17 million bond council approved in 2015 is only for improvements. In looking over our past coverage of the MegaSite, it is unclear from where the county would get nearly $30 million to buy the site.
Based on comments nine years ago by then-Kershaw County Economic Director Nelson Lindsay, who is now the director of the S.C. Department of Commerce’s Global Business Division, the county would not exercise its option unless an industry unequivocally agrees to locate there. We would support Lindsay’s conservative approach and presume that industry would purchase the site from the county.
But presumption isn’t certainty.
All we are asking of council is this: 1) Be up front about how such deals work; there is no shame in quid pro quo if one is up front about it. 2) Tread carefully with the people’s money. $30 million is a lot, especially when the county could have exercised one of its earlier options for as much as $10 million less. Even the $800,000 -- which the county is going to spend on a property owned by a private landowner -- is a lot of Kershaw County taxpayer money, with more work needed in the future.
We want the county to succeed in its economic development efforts, and that includes at the MegaSite. We just want to be assured that the steps council and the county are taking are the right ones for the right price -- and that they are being totally upfront about regarding how they are going about it.