The historic fishing village may soon take its place alongside Hilton Head, Bluffton and Beaufort.
Story and Photos by Dean Rowland
Whit Suber waited many years to acquire the 317 acres on Port Royal’s south end. He, another business partner and two other investors purchased the former port on 2.1 miles of waterfront property along Battery Creek and Beaufort River at a state-sponsored auction for $9,000,005 in 2017.
“It was an auction process, and I wanted to add an extra $5 in case somebody else bid $9 million, and in fact they did,” said the Columbia native and longtime Lowcountry resident. “I thought this site was incredible.”
Suber and company are developing the 56 acres of developable land with a 225-slip deepwater marina to accommodate luxury yachts, a waterfront hotel on the site of the rundown and unused port terminal built in 1958; single-family homes, townhomes, condos and cottages; business and restaurant spaces; and an entertainment/retail district.
The Hilton Head-based Reilley family of Coastal Restaurants and Bars opened its 10th eatery, Fishcamp at 11th Street in Port Royal, in September 2018 on the property owned by Grey Ghost Properties LLC.
Chris Butler, Butler Marine owner and Suber’s partner, owns and operates a renovated 240-slip dry stack boat storage on-site, the only such large facility between the Broad River and Charleston. Plans are underway for a microbrewery/restaurant and a rejuvenated shrimp processing facility.
“What Port Royal is today is basically a footnote in the Lowcountry,” said Suber, Grey Ghost developer and broker-in-charge. “When people talk about Beaufort County, they talk about Beaufort, Hilton Head and Bluffton. They don’t talk about Port Royal. Port Royal will absolutely be taking its place alongside those places.”
“It was clear that if we developed the port properly, we would enhance a classic historic town,” said Joe DeVito, the newly elected mayor and 33-year resident of Port Royal. “I see it very much as a good thing.”
The centerpiece in the company’s portfolio of lofty credentials rests with occupying land bordering the deepest natural channel on the Eastern Seaboard at 40 feet. Eventually, the new marina will welcome yachts as long as 325 feet to Port Royal.
“This is the last of its kind in the state of South Carolina,” Suber said. “There is no undeveloped coastal town left … These sleepy coastal towns don’t exist anymore.”
Suber said he expects the bulk of the development to be completed within five to eight years and total buildout within 12 years. The developer’s agreement from 15 years ago, a planned urban development document and all permitting are in hand. He projects development costs of the expansive multi-use project at $300 million upon completion.
The first phase of overall development is expected to begin in February with the marina and selling land parcels for single-family homes northwest of Fishcamp.
Five lots on the 20-acre parcel for homes will feature private docks and sell for about $750,000 apiece. Other home sites at the 86-home community will start at about $500,000. All sites are perched on a 34-foot-bluff teaming with live and laurel oaks and magnificent views of the creek and beyond. The community also will have its own private 33-slip marina and three greenspace parks, Suber said.
Suber said he would like to restore Port Royal as a sailing community. The Warrior Sailing Program for veterans plans to relocate its headquarters to the town.
Dozens of representatives from Newport, R.I., Spain, Australia and elsewhere globally have visited Port Royal to glean information from Suber about developing the waterfront. Grey Ghost allies itself with the town of Port Royal in a mutually beneficial partnership, he said.
“The town is one of the greatest things about this project,” he said. “The existing village is the bow on the package if you ask me. You have this cool quaint town with a beautiful street grid system with tremendous opportunity for upward mobility.
“The town and I are business partners,” he said. “We share detailed information; we have no secrets. They’re incredibly supportive to us, and we’re incredibly upfront with them.”
DeVito agreed. “If we don’t work together to get it done, then it may only be half baked. To make it great, it has to be a partnership. It’s going to bring more people to experience the charm and the character and the historic fishing village of Port Royal.”
But DeVito insists there must be an expanded infrastructure of new “spine” roads off Ribaut Road with a handful of connectors into the older neighborhoods in town. Paris Avenue would remain the main artery through the town without absorbing the influx of traffic.
Suber said he carries the “delightful burden” of responsibility of making the right decisions for his company and the community every day at work moving forward. He meets weekly at Madison’s restaurant for coffee and conversation with locals of all backgrounds.
“Your imagination goes wild over a piece of property like this,” he said. “There is so much opportunity and so much responsibility to do it right. The impact and decisions you make have a tremendous gravity for the community.”
Port Royal’s Lowcountry authenticity has been untouched since it was incorporated in 1874. The only thing that has changed in the town since it was first explored by French pioneer Jean Ribaut in 1562 and the Spanish, Scots and English over the next 100 years is that more people than ever are calling it home.
Attracted to its Lowcountry charm and natural landscape, genuine Southern hospitality and idyllic waterfront location, 4,000 residents lived there in 2000 and more than 10,000 in 2010. That number will certainly swell in the 2020 census in and beyond.
“My hope is when a visitor comes here 20 years from now, they’ll have no idea where we started and the old town left off,” Suber said.
Shrimping is a big issue
The shrimp boats docked at Battery Creek on Port Royal’s south end are inarguably the town’s most iconic landmark. Their presence also marks a perplexing dilemma for the town government, which manages the dock and has rental contracts with the boat owners. Most of the wooden hulls of the dozen or so privately-owned boats are in various stages of disrepair and rot. Some are abandoned, and two don’t even have engines. One boat leaked diesel fuel in October from a small hole under the water that bubbled to the surface and left a slick sheen. A 60-foot boat sank last summer and spilled fuel into the water.
“One of the reasons we enjoy the view of these boats — and we enjoy it 365 days a year — is because those boats don’t shrimp,” said Whit Suber, developer/partner for the company that owns 317 acres on the town’s south end including the shrimp dock. “They don’t move. We have one working boat. It is a signature portion of our property, but you have to be realistic; we have a boat junkyard out there. They are waiting to sink.”
Newly elected mayor Joe DeVito, a Port Royal resident since 1986, concedes the issue is problematic.
“It’s a very difficult thing,” he said. “We are working diligently to find a way to save what’s there, but the owners need to maintain their boats.”
He added, “We have to work on that. We’ve got to make sure that the boats that want to be there are there, and boats that are possibly abandoned at that location get removed so we can move on and maybe bring in some more working boats.”
As Suber said and DeVito seconded, the irony is if the fleet of boats do shrimp in the future, they would be on the water and away from the dock, out of sight to the people who love to see them in port, take pictures and admire the charming Southern fishing village scene.
“We have what is truly the old-school romantic shrimp boat,” Suber said.
No one wants to abandon the notion that the shrimp boat issue can’t be resolved. It will be, because everybody knows it has to be. It’s Port Royal’s signature attraction.