Monday, February 16, 2009

Tybee History Is Up for Bid

Savannah Morning News
Tom Barton
Sunday, February 15, 2009 at 12:30 am

Battery Backus, a century-old beachfront fortification built on the coast during the Spanish-American War, needs a buyer who appreciates history.

The building industry, which is in the tank, has apparently claimed another victim.

But this time, there's a silver lining.

Preservationists - and fellow travelers who believe that time and tribulations fall like dead weights once they cross the Lazaretto Creek bridge onto Tybee Island - should take note.

The owner of Battery Backus, part of the distinctive, century-old coastal fortifications built on Tybee Island, has apparently failed to find a buyer.

The historic, beachfront property had an asking price of $2.1 million when owner Lou Kietzman put the concrete, bunker-like structure on Pulaksi Street on the market last October. But it's been a "no sale" since then.

On March 3, it will sold to the highest bidder for cash on the courthouse steps.

It seems First National Bank, which holds the note on the property, hasn't been getting paid, according to a legal notice.

Many banks are under pressure these days to scrub their books of debt, which is understandable. But Battery Backus is hardly a toxic asset. It's a piece of history in the raw.

And it's begging to fall into the hands of an owner who will protect and appreciate it.

Kietzman once had grand plans to build two homes on this distinctive site that overlooks the Atlantic. That's apparently not going to happen - or if it is, he's not going to be the builder. Someone else will have to buy the property from the bank, then continue the fight to build where Kietzman left off.

Or not.

Indeed, why not find a buyer who'll acquire it from the bank and build nothing?

Last year, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation placed Battery Backus on its statewide list of "10 Places in Peril." The group cites the fortification, one of seven gun emplacements on Tybee built at the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898, as worth preserving. So should area residents who want to keep another piece of the "old" Tybee from disappearing.

The City of Tybee Island once purchased the battery for $200,000, but foolishly sold it. Kietzman picked it up for $1 million in 2007 - a time when the value of nearly everything at the beach was strapped on a rocket to the moon.

More recently, prices have tumbled back toward earth. How much is it worth today? The Chatham County Tax Assessor's Office is carrying it on its books for $1,342,500, an amount that seems inflated and out of touch with reality. But in terms of heritage, it's priceless.

Tybee resident Ed Cawley, who directs the Fort Screven Preservation Organization, believes the impending auction creates an opportunity to save this structure. He's right.

Of course, that begs the question: Who's got the cash money to do it?

Tybee's city government isn't flush with extra dough. Neither is the Chatham County Commission or the State of Georgia, which is $2 billion in the red.

It's also too late to attach it to President Obama's stimulus list (buying and restoring an old fort to stimulate the economy makes more sense than building new schools that aren't needed).

So short of finding a benevolent fat cat, or convincing First National Bank to act magnanimously and give up the deed in return for a tax break, there's no obvious solution.

What is clear is that a rare opportunity presents itself in just 16 days.

It's not often that a genuine piece of history goes on the auction block. Let's hope the highest bidder is the one with the best intentions.

Tom Barton is the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News.

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