To the Contrary

January 3, 2009

Raiding conservation bank

The fate of 162 acres on Lemon Island in Beaufort County illustrates the damage that can be done by a poor choice in the state legislature.

The legislature opted in October to raid the South Carolina Conservation Bank to help pay for schools as the state budget started to unravel in a weak economy.

One result is that state money promised for the conservation of the Widgeon Point tract on Lemon Island is in limbo. The state agreed to pay $500,000 of the $4 million cost to protect the land, permanently preserving its maritime forest and salt marsh.

Conservation Bank money also was promised for the purchase of 5,000 acres along the Whale Branch River in northern Beaufort County.

It is not fair to the local partners in these deals -- the Beaufort County Rural and Critical Land Preservation Program and the Beaufort County Open Land Trust -- to renege on a good-faith promise. ...

In this year's State of the State address, Gov. Mark Sanford urged the legislature to pump $50 million into the bank in addition to the revenue it gets from property transfers, and the legislature came up with $5 million.

The Lemon Island site is a perfect example of the Conservation Bank's long-term value to the state. The bank should not be seen as a luxury for fat times, but as a commitment for all times.

"Lost opportunity" is the only way to describe the foolish raid on the bank's meager resources.

Hard Rock Park

Perhaps it should not be surprising that the U.S. Bankruptcy Court auction for Hard Rock Park attracted nary a winning bidder. Still, the minimum bid was $35 million on the $400 million attraction and going into the auction it was easy to speculate that an investor (perhaps a Saudi Arabian oil sheik) might find this attractive.

The bankruptcy judge in Delaware set the $35 million floor -- 9 percent of the reported original value -- after rejecting the theme park's owners' plan to reorganize and emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy free of their creditors. ...

The lack of bidders to date may say more about global economic realities than about the attractiveness of the theme park as an investment. ... Our tourism outlook will improve as economies recover in other states that feed Grand Strand tourism.

For the Hard Rock Park site, though, any activity in 2009 seems unlikely. Even were it to remain a theme park it could not open until 2010 following upgrades and additional rides which potential buyers have told officials would be necessary. ...

Even before it opened, industry speculation was that the park's third owner could be financially successful -- the first owners having difficulty making debt payments, the second buying the park at a bargain price and stabilizing it and then selling for more than it paid. At this juncture, the area awaits Owner No. 2.

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