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Accord reached on shopping center bill

Local shoppers would help pay for the infrastructure of a planned upscale shopping center near the South Carolina border under a compromise that won key approval Thursday in the state Senate.

The Senate's voice vote ended weeks of debate over proposed incentives for a 280-acre, $400 million retail development in Jasper County.

The compromise would allow Hardeeville officials and residents to add up to 2 cents on the sales tax of items sold at the shopping center. A vote by City Council could tack on the first penny, while voters could approve the second in a referendum. The money would reimburse the developer for the cost of infrastructure, including road construction and water and sewer lines. The extra tax could be collected for up to 20 years, though it would end whenever the eligible projects are fully reimbursed.

Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Ridgeland, said the bill will bring needed jobs to the area roughly 20 miles from both Hilton Head Island and Savannah, Ga.

To get the money, private investment must exceed $100 million. The Okatie Crossing shopping center must also create 1,250 full-time jobs during the first year and keep at least 625 employees in following years.

The proposal had allowed the developer to keep part of state sales taxes collected at the mall over the next 15 years.

But some Republicans opposed the proposed state tax breaks, saying the mall would compete with existing retailers who aren't getting state help and would take jobs from other areas. The president of The Sembler Co. praised the bill's passage.

Different from the initial bill, "it nonetheless gives our company the ability to continue with plans for a high-end shopping mall that not only creates jobs, but attracts new tourism dollars and expands the tax base," said Jeff Fuqua of Sembler.