Monday, February 1, 2010

After research, Sembler’s mall plans look pretty good

Bluffton Today

Last week, in this space, I promised to offer a definitive stance on the incentive package for the 280-acre commercial project located on the Beaufort and Jasper county line off S.C. 170, currently being readied for development by the Sembler Co.

There is a division in our community regarding whether this large mall development is appropriate for its proposed location, whether it is too close to the already impaired Okatie River, and, finally, whether it is proper to offer state economic development incentives for a retail development as opposed to an industrial concern such as Boeing or BMW.

In truth, I have struggled with some aspects of this matter, in that it seemed to place into conflict my two bedrock political priorities: a clean, healthy environment and jobs to support Lowcountry families.

In my column Jan. 18, I wrote about the “competing narratives” concerning the so-called “megamall.” I also reported that last April I voted to expand the criteria for economic development incentives, opening the door for the Sembler tax rebates now under scrutiny.

In fact, I sponsored the amendment that created the expansion of what was an acceptable project for state support.

Admittedly, I voted, along with a majority of our delegation, for a jobs bill without being fully aware of some of the particulars that would flow from our actions. I was fully aware, however, that we were in a serious recession with a real unemployment rate of around 15 to 18 percent, and jobs were high on my priority list.

In the Jan. 18 column, it was made clear that I was “gravely concerned” about 280 acres of rooftops and parking lots creating runoff potentially flowing to the Okatie. I still am.

However, while these are all important concerns, I have also been doing my homework. I have digested the Sembler stormwater plan, as well as consulted with a variety of independent engineers. The consensus is that the developer has come up with a very good, forward-looking plan that does not further burden the Okatie.

Furthermore, I have personal assurances from Sembler management that the plan will be executed and tweaked where necessary. They have also committed to abide by the rigorous Beaufort County stormwater ordinance. If they fall short of the mark, I promise that the state will engage them with serious and aggressive oversight.

With a certain comfort level on the environmental side, I am heartened by the number of jobs we will likely see in a matter of months, as the site prep and infrastructure work begins in earnest. This will be followed by the operational jobs that will increase with the completion of each additional phase. Since the incentives are tied to employment numbers, I am pretty confident that Sembler will make a diligent effort to get up to speed sooner rather than later.

Finally, after having visited a flagship Sembler property in Florida, I see the potential for positive and even transformational growth in an area that has historically been left behind. While there may still be questions about whether economic incentives for this kind of job creation are appropriate, in my view repatriating your state tax dollars to our area not only creates these needed jobs, but also a regional amenity, and is essentially our own, homegrown stimulus package.

Friends, I am convinced that this is a good deal for all concerned.

Having said that, your representative will still follow the Reagan mantra: Trust but verify.