From sleepy square mile to busy boom town in 20 years

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The first building in the Promenade nears completion in August 2006. This building now houses real estate offices and sits directly opposite The Corner Perk. The dumpster sits in what is now the middle of Promenade Street. FILE PHOTO

Editor's Note: The Bluffton Sun was first published in January 1998. As we celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2018, we want to look at the past 20 years of history and changes around town. This is the first in a series of articles about the changes we've all seen. Join us as we revisit the past 20 years.

About 20 years ago, when the award-winning Bluffton Sun began printing as The City Sun, life was fairly quiet in what some characterized as a sleepy little village on the May River known as Bluffton.

As Bluffton's reputation has grown as a top destination - thanks to lavish praise by local, regional and national publications, and broadcast and social media - so has its population, government apparatus, culture, and its ever-evolving and branding of a "Bluffton State of Mind."

This catchy motto translates into an unparalleled Lowcountry lifestyle where Bluffton is a pleasurable place to play, work and live every day. Indeed, Bluffton is becoming known as "The Heart of the Lowcountry."

What once was a one-square-mile dot on the map and a drive-by for tourists en route to Hilton Head Island has become a must-visit for vacationers and islanders alike. Quaint Old Town and its art galleries, restaurants, boutiques, renowned farmers' market, and numerous fairs and festivals attract thousands annually to this coastal bluff along the May River.

The Promenade, just a skip across May River Road from Old Town's Calhoun Street, was an 8.2-acre undeveloped patch of land less than a dozen years ago. The Promenade as we know it today, with its park square ringed by mixed-use retail and residential units, was born in 2006 and is now nearly built out.

Greater Bluffton grew by leaps and bounds shortly after the Del Webb corporation broke ground on the first phase of Sun City Hilton Head, the retirement community for active adults, in the 1990s. The first residents moved into their new homes in 1995.

Today, Bluffton is the fastest growing municipality in South Carolina.

From 1990 to 2000, the town sprinted from 541 to 754 residents, posting an astonishing growth rate of 11.88 percent annually. The residential growing pains and gains pushed the town forward so quickly that virtually everything else associated with growth - from town government and its building inspections, to zoning changes and parking spaces to the residential and commercial construction industry, retailing and dining - either struggled to keep up or joined newcomers who joyously jumped on the bandwagon.

If ever there was a clear example of a "boom town," Bluffton was it. But the boom hadn't busted yet.

The decade from 2000 to 2010 defies definitive explanation or adequate adjectives to describe what happened. The residential base surged to 12,530 by the end of the decade. From 2000 to 2005, the population swelled 26.83 percent annually, and then began tapering off to 10.5 percent annually for the next five years.

Bluffton took many deep breaths to recover and to provide the quality of life that the 18,897 people living here in 2016 and the businesses supporting them expected.

While the human face of Bluffton clearly changed because of the influx of new residents, so did its personality when the town transformed from a tiny sleepy waterfront village into a full-fledged town with modern amenities.

A "land rush" of annexation westward toward SC 170 and Sun City provided a large chunk of acreage upon which to build new homes, communities, and commercial clusters of supermarkets and other retail-based services.

Bluffton's original 1-square-mile was designated a National Register Historic District in 1996. The Bluffton Historic District was later created to include that area and surrounding properties.

Bluffton town government kept its eyes wide open on the promised land by annexing the 20,662-acre Palmetto Bluff in 1998. Buckwalter Place formed as a 94-acre mixed-use technology park in the 2000s, and the town recently annexed four tracts totaling 32,000 acres of undeveloped land. Since 1987, Bluffton has approved 44 annexations.

Keeping track and shepherding all these developments is Mayor Lisa Sulka, elected in 2007; her four-person town council; and more than 130 town employees, led by Town Manager Marc Orlando, who was appointed to that post in 2014, following service as deputy town manager since 2009.

The council-manager form of government was formed in 1999. Seven primary departments - executive, police, public information, growth management, finance and administration, engineering, and human resources - provide necessary governmental services to its citizens and business community.

Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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