If all goes according to plan, there will be a groundbreaking before the end of January for a new, ambitious, multi-faceted enterprise on a one-acre lot along Calhoun Street between Green and Bridge streets.
The Bridge at Calhoun plan features three two-story buildings, each less than 7,750 square feet. The top floors will be a mix of 1- and 2-bedroom apartments along with one 3-bedroom. The street-level spaces will be filled with a mix of three industries that owner Matt Cunningham said goes “into the arts direction.”
“One of those is culinary arts. People are going to The Farm because they’re going for good food, Michelin-star level. This could be a destination for foodies,” he said.
The second industry is contemporary art.
“Obviously Calhoun Street is known for its arts. Amari Ferris is going to have his studio in that space. He and I started a nonprofit in March looking at how do you grow art as an economy,” said Cunningham. As part of increasing contemporary art in the downtown area, a number of rotating murals will be incorporated into the walls of the buildings. “You can say things through art – poetry, song lyrics, visual arts – that you can’t say in normal conversation.”
The last thing is artists in retail.
“This is a retail space. We are looking at encouraging entrepreneurs, and business ownership is part of it. Who is currently participating, who is benefiting, who will be there five, 10, 15 years from now,” Cunningham said. “Twenty-five percent of the business owners in Bluffton are women and seven percent are African American. If you look at that specifically – and community growth – when you invest with women business owners, more often the dollars will flow back into the community, and they will be reinvested.”
He added that in the “inside of the bridge that I am helping to grow, there’s a specific interest in women and African American entrepreneurs. I think it will demonstrate economic value, which will cause more investment.”
Cunningham moved to Hilton Head Island in 2007, working for CareCore National before it was renamed eviCore Healthcare. He worked with the late Don Ryan, co-founder and CEO of CareCore, who moved here and believed in helping make Bluffton grow. Cunningham said he believes the same thing.
“Part of this is because I moved to Bluffton and really love Bluffton. It’s not that I moved here to make an investment,” he said. He and his family moved into the Promenade three and a half years ago. “I like that multi-use space above shops. Your neighbors see you in your work mode, family mode, and non-work mode. The thing I really like about that concept is it encourages living in a more authentic way.”
Cunningham also saw the growth that was happening.
“This place is not ‘going’ to grow – it is growing. In order to have a retail corridor, you have to have a master plan, (one) that is well laid out already. I really feel like the growth of the town is a good thing if done well, and the town did think about it, and I agree with it,” he said. “I do want to invest in the town. It’s a town where I want my kids to grow up and not move away from.
Of the location for his Bridge project, he said “It is the most prominent space in Old Town Bluffton, so it must be done well.”
Cunningham anticipates 100 people will be employed in the six retail spaces and the one restaurant, which he hopes to announce in February.
The development site has been home to a variety of small, family-owned businesses until the property was sold and cleared last year. Most notably, the unique Eggs ’n’ Tricities boutique – now on Lawton Street – operated out of a former gas station on the corner of Bridge and Calhoun. Next door, in the early 2000s, in a former mechanic’s shop was artist Amos Hummell’s studio, often the scene for years of monthly impromptu performances of “Living Colors,” a show directed by Hummell and performed by whoever couldn’t evade his shanghaiing onto the stage.
With a history like that, opinions are divided on the impact the Bridge at Calhoun will have on Old Town’s character and traffic with its architectural style and new businesses.
Bluffton native Nancy Golson, the former owner of Eggs, said she thinks it is “way too massive for that part of town.” A founder of the May River Montessori School, which is across the street, Golson is concerned about the impact on the students and the school traffic.
“There are more than 125 children going to Montessori. It’s been there for 30 years,” she said. “The amount of traffic that is at 8:30, 11:30 and 2:30 when the children are picked up is heavy. It is a traffic jam there at 2:30, especially on farmer’s market days. There may be 10 cars on the street, and across the street there will be space for 58 more cars. I don’t know how the town can think this is a good idea. I never thought we would be so dense.”
Golson remarked that there was no big open space remaining in Bluffton.
“I’m all for the Wright Family Park, but somebody needs to revisit the codes. It’s too tall, too big, too much. You look at old pictures of Old Town Bluffton and people had yards. They were set back from the street, and now they’re right on the street,” she said. “I know some of the parents protested, but the town is all about building everything out to the sidewalk. And now there isn’t space for people to pass each other.”
Golson is not sure the proposed restaurant will be able to get an alcohol license.
“South Carolina laws says you can’t serve alcohol closer to a school than 300 feet, so I don’t know how they’re going to get one for the restaurant. And the Montessori school was there first,” she said. “When there comes time to get a liquor license, I hope I can protest.”
Charlene Gardner, owner of Four Corners Gallery on May River Road since 1990, has been in Bluffton since 1985. She has several concerns about the project and took action.
“I wrote several letters to the town that were read out loud for the development review board. I posted a letter even on my Facebook page,” she said.
In one letter, she noted two specific issues, beginning with Bluffton’s master plan:
“The mayor, along with other town officials, feel our cultural, historical and environmental position is important enough to protect through the continual use of this master plan. The town of Bluffton has hosted several historic symposiums and tours of our small charming Southern town to visiting dignitaries in order to demonstrate what a harmonious outcome the town has had by following this plan,” she wrote.
She was also worried about the impact of the development on the historic site adjacent to the new structures.
“Given the current climate for Black Lives Matter, I would encourage you to respect the Heyward House’s close proximity to this site, and the proposed location for trash and parked cars,” she noted. “Heyward House has demonstrated that slaves were housed in the small outbuildings on the property, and this proposal overshadows and all but encroaches upon this historical site.”
Gardner was as dismayed about the project size as Golson.
“I don’t know how anyone is going to be available to afford it. As far as I am concerned there is no way three 8,000-square-foot buildings belong next to the historic building,” Gardner said.
Cunningham is aware of many residents’ concerns and worries, and he understands their love for Bluffton.
“I appreciate that they would feel passionate enough to make the statements that they have. This is a town that people feel really strongly about. I think the concept that I am trying to build represents growth, and I think there are a lot of people who don’t want the growth to happen,” he said. “The reason we got unanimous approval is the town planned for this growth, and it became a lightning rod around the conversation ‘Is growth a good thing?’ I think it’s a good thing. They’re not wrong in their opinions, but I just disagree with their perspective. There’s going to be growth but let’s do it smartly. I also believe they represent the town.”
But not everyone is opposed. Babbie Guscio, owner of The Store across the street on Calhoun, said she thought it would be a nice addition.
“It doesn’t bother me at all. Once they build it, I think it will be fun. It’ll fit into everything in Bluffton. And I’ll bet everybody in town will be shopping there or living there. Bluffton in the old days, this was the main shopping area around and everyone was shopping here until they built the bridge to Savannah,” said Guscio. “This will bring the town back to life. I’m looking forward to eating in the restaurant there and shopping in the shops. … Any place that is being reborn, it’s always a problem with parking. People will always come. Anyone that opens a store down there, I wish them well. We need to lift us all up, and go on and live life.”
Cunningham said he expects to break ground mid- to late-January.
“We’ll be finalizing the commercial loans and then going to the permitting process which has been happening since October,” he said. “Once the ground breaks add 10 months. We really want to try to make the holiday season next year with a big ground-breaking ceremony.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.