The Promenade in Old Town Bluffton as we know it today almost wasn’t. More than 10 years ago, local developer and state legislator Bill Herbkersman purchased the 8.2-acre undeveloped property.
Towering pine trees, patches of earth and an elderly woman in a rundown trailer were the only residents on the property. Herbkersman assured the woman that she could live there as long as she wanted. Upon her death, things changed.
The zoning of the property at that time was for warehousing. “I figured if the mini-warehouses were there, it would be bad for Bluffton,” he said.
Over a sketchy design drawn on a napkin, and after handshakes with three town officials with beers in hand, the Promenade was born in 2006.
“I saw a downtown you could walk through … I could feel the heartbeat of the town,” said Herbkersman, a 30-year Bluffton resident who moved south from Cleveland, Ohio. “I thought it could evolve into a Charleston or a Beaufort, so we put together a plan to have commercial on the bottom with shops and residential upstairs. Big mixed use. So we moved in that direction.”
As it turned out, Herbkersman’s clarity of vision was prescient.
“Mixed use is attractive,” said Mike Vaccaro, president of Vaccaro Architects Inc., who worked with Herbkersman on the design of the project. “You can work there, you can eat there, you can drink there and you can live there. The Promenade is the place to be in Bluffton.”
Initially, Herbkersman constructed five buildings on speculation. Captain Woody’s opened as the first restaurant in the Promenade in 2006, and Corks Wine Co. soon followed.
Herbkersman’s plans to construct 82 residences generated 165 reservations, but then the recession hit in 2008 and nearly everything came to a standstill.
“We’re one of the few that are still chugging, barely chugging through the recession,” he said. “We already had shovels in the ground.”
“There wasn’t much going on at all,” said Vaccaro, the architect of 14 buildings completed or near completion in the Promenade, and a member of the Promenade’s executive board. His design of Moon Mi Pizza in 2010 marked the beginning of a slow economic turnaround.
In 2012, he designed the 7,500-square-foot brick structure that houses The Bluffton Room restaurant on street level and luxury rental apartments on the second and third floors.
“Then the floodgates opened,” he said. “That sent a signal to potential buyers and investors that this was the place that people would put up buildings that were meant to last.”
The Promenade – whose boundary stretches from May River Road to the south, Bluffton Road to the east, Mellichamp Drive to the north and undeveloped woodland to the west – is now 95 percent built out.
Corner Perk café moved in a year ago and introduced its Roasting Room upstairs with live music earlier this year.
Sippin’ Cow will be relocating on the north end this spring, Thee Oyster Bar soon will occupy the former Mulberry St. Pizzeria, and Vineyard 55 will open as Calhoun’s in the former Infield Bar and Grill location.
Cocoon, Roost, Kelly Caron Designs, Agave Sidebar and Bauer Dental Associates have all opened recently. The FARM restaurant and a two-story bed and breakfast, both on May River Road, are in the works.
Architectural designs for new or renovated buildings must be approved by Vaccaro and Herbkersman, who then forward it to the local Historical Preservation Commission.
“We try to give everybody want they want,” Vaccaro said. “Our goal is to give people their individual expression to make it a unique community. We want architectural creativity.”
Aesthetics aside, The Promenade also is a “huge economic engine for Bluffton” that has created 350 new jobs, Herbkersman said.
Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer living in Bluffton.