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S.C. Trade Center ‘Pipe Dream’ Up In Smoke?

CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) - It was supposed to put North Charleston on the map as a center of global trade. But more than four years after the North Charleston City Council approved plans to put South Carolina's first World Trade Center building next to the Charleston Area Convention Center, little remains of the proposal but memories. And now a lawsuit.

Betsch Associates, of Greenville, demands $39,412 for architectural and engineering services from the Trade Center Development Corp. The bill involves the trade center project and a second office complex the Trade Center Development Corp. planned for Orangeburg.

Betsch sued in the Charleston County Court of Common Pleas.

The suit is a long shot, said attorney W. Turner Boone of the McNair law firm, in part because both of the TCDC principals have died in the past year.

But it illustrates that high-profile development often turn out to be far less than what their backers initially announced.

Back in August 2004, when the City Council voted 9-2 to endorse the proposal, the S.C. World Trade Center was close to maxing out its office downtown in the BellSouth building.

The plan for what was described as a four- or six-story building included new offices for the trade group, an "international bank" and office space for foreign companies interested in testing their products in the U.S. market.

Then-trade center Executive Director Mark Condon said the beauty of the plan was that it would be less expensive for these companies to establish incubators in North Charleston than in larger cities.

Condon said he hoped that the complex would attract local organizations focused on economic development too.

The driving force behind the project was Florida real estate developer Fred Frankel and his wife, Henrietta. The couple, childless and well into their golden years, had done a number of residential and mixed-use development projects in the Sunshine State over the years.

But those who came to know them over the last few years saw something besides a desire to conclude their development careers with a world-class project; in a very real sense, said one World Trade Center staffer speaking on background, the Frankels seemed to view their new associates in Charleston as the immediate family they never had.

In approving the plan, the city established a 50-year lease for the trade center. Under the agreement, the trade center would lease the roughly half-acre lot for $10,000 a year and at any time during the lease buy the space at $13 per square foot - a rate that would never increase.

Some questioned whether the deal was too favorable to the trade center and harmful to taxpayers. But Mayor Keith Summey and other supporters said the lease was similar to others the city had signed around the same time, including that for the Marriott Residence Inn.

The city expected a considerable return on the lease for the building site and nearby parking spaces - an estimated $70,000 a year in revenue plus $125,000 a year in property tax value.

The groundbreaking was supposed to happen in the first half of 2005. But for reasons that were never entirely clear, it didn't happen.

In time, World Trade Center staffers began to question whether the project was ever going to happen. "It's gotten to the point where it's really more a pipe dream than anything else," one staffer told a reporter in early 2007.

By then the North Charleston building had become something of a white whale.

As time wore on, even advocates of the project began to speak of it in the "present continuous" tense: The Frankels were reviewing, facilitating or coordinating elements of the plan, but nothing tangible was getting done.

That didn't deter Frankel from announcing an even more audacious project - the creation of an "international, mixed-use village in Orangeburg County" that, he said, would bring in $1 billion in foreign investment over 20 years.

This project should not be confused - although it often is - with the similar sounding, but different World Trade City project in Orangeburg being promulgated by Condon and his business partners Summer Xia, Jimmie Gianoukos and Dean Allen.

The initial phase TCDC project, on some 1,200 acres next to Interstate 26, would include homes, warehousing, manufacturing and a country club, Frankel said.

As recently as early 2008, Frankel said construction on the project would begin within six months.

Like the North Charleston project, the Orangeburg project never got further than a series of renderings.

Shortly after Frankel announced his Orangeburg plan, his wife Henrietta was stricken by pancreatic cancer and died. Six months later, Frankel died.

Given that backdrop, Turner Boone said that while Betsch Associates is doing what it can to collect the debt owed to it, at this point nobody knows whether the Trade Center Development Corp. has any assets at all.

"This is one of those cases where you file your complaint and then really don't know what to expect," he said. "If nobody shows up to represent the company, then we'll get a judgment by default - but that's it.

"Now, there's always the possibility that some of the corporation's assets were commingled with personal assets and wound up as part of the estate, but so far, there's no evidence that happened," he said.

"Unless I can then find some assets for the corporation, this action isn't going to amount to much," Boone said.

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