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FEATURE ‌ Developing the Past

S.C. developer comes home, protects 'sacred' Morris Island

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Morris Island Coalition head Blake Hallman (above) is all smiles as he stand in the bow of his boat parked in front of the slender spit of land he fought for years to protect; Bobby Ginn (L), announcing his plans for Morris Island
  • Morris Island Coalition head Blake Hallman (above) is all smiles as he stand in the bow of his boat parked in front of the slender spit of land he fought for years to protect; Bobby Ginn (L), announcing his plans for Morris Island

Typically, developers don't preserve, and they sure as hell don't conserve. They usually rape and pillage, hit and run, make their money as fast as they can and get out of town.

So, in the countrified parlance of his native Hampton County, it needs to be asked of Bobby Ginn: Boy, what in the hell were you thinking last week when you gave away nearly $3 million and the northern tip of Morris Island?

Last Thursday, Ginn's company held a press conference on the harbor-front deck of the S.C. Aquarium, along with Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and representatives from the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land (TPL), to announce that it had just purchased 120-plus acres of Morris Island for $6.8 million and had agreed to give the TPL one year to raise $4.5 million to buy the land.

Additionally, the Ginn Co. announced it would contribute $500,000 toward a comprehensive archeological survey of the eroding and accreting transient barrier island to determine and identify the historic spots relating to the Civil War, and build a walking trail from public landings through the island with corresponding monuments.

Last month, a hue and cry was raised from City Hall to the Statehouse and beyond when preservationists and conservationists jerked to alert upon learning that an out-of-town developer had purchased an option to buy the land, with the possible intent of building a fishing lodge or golf course on it.

"Our company is a community development company; also, we're operators who are in it for the long-term," said Ginn, the president and chief executive officer of the Orlando-based "destination living" company that owns and runs Belvidere Club and Resort locally, which includes RiverTowne country club and Patriots Point golf club. It also owns and runs golf course communities, resorts, and ski destinations from Colorado to the Bahamas.

"We're not just going to sell and get out," said Ginn, framed by the new Cooper River Bridge directly behind him and, to his right, a stretch of 200 acres his company now owns above the bridge alongside Morrison Drive and that it plans to turn into a "big building" resort destination.

"Thanks to the Ginn Company, there will be no development on Morris Island — I say it again, there will be no development on Morris Island," announced David Agnew, the chairman of the Trust for Public Land's South Carolina advisory board.

Agnew also doled out serious praise for his former boss, Mayor Riley, for whom he served as an executive assistant, calling him an "amazing leader." Without Riley's credibility, Agnew said, the deal would have been much harder, if not impossible, to negotiate.

Riley's leadership role in the Lowcountry is unquestionable, as it was on this day when he helped usher the transfer of this "sacred" and "delicate" piece of history out of the hands of a developer and into a public trust — especially since that specific plot was County land and was located outside City limits.

As evident as Riley's imprimatur was on this deal, the absence of the County's was equally felt, with not one County Counclperson in attendance.

The mayor said "Morris Island" would once again become a battle cry, but this time it would represent proof positive that Charleston is a city that "stands up for its environment and special places."

Riley spoke to concerns that the Ginn Co. had purchased a quid pro quo agreement with the City with the gift when he said the deal would benefit Ginn in no way "other than his personal pride."

The Ginn Co. has spent more than $100 million on properties in and around Charleston, and has at different times presented City Hall with golf course resort plans for a former dump site along the Cooper River and for the contentious Grimball Farms property on James Island.

While the importance, size, and cost of the gift should not be forgotten, it should also be noted that the $3 million loss still represents only roughly 3 percent of what Ginn Co. has already spent in the area, and that amount should soar as the company begins to develop its Promenade and Grimball Farms properties.

After the press conference, as Ginn Co. officials waited for a boat to take them to the island that was home to the battle depicted in the 1989 movie Glory, Riley did agree that City Council doesn't live in a bubble. He also said that Ginn's largesse would create "enormous goodwill" on Council, adding in a somewhat wooden fashion that "any project in the city would have to conform with requirements pursuant to community requirements."

When asked how much money the City would likely commit to the project, the mayor said he wasn't sure, but that the deal would have probably been more difficult without the half-cent local options sales tax County voters approved last year, and that a sizable chunk would probably come from the tax's greenspace funds.

As positive as the speakers at the win-win press conference were, none were as pleased by the announcement as Blake Hallman, a Civil War buff who heads the Morris Island Coalition and has worked for years to preserve and protect Morris Island.

With the enlisted remains of Confederate soldiers and a mortar battery suspected to still be on the shifting, migrating island, the announcement couldn't have come at a better time for his organization.

Once the television crews packed up and left, Ginn began to look as relaxed as he probably did growing up in Hampton County, visiting Morris Island by boat as a kid.

"We're not a parasite of what's here," said Ginn, contented, his personal pride obviously sated.

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